First let me start off by saying…as you may have read in my last entry about, oh I don’t know……6 months ago, I only wanted to write about my journey with the correct intentions behind them. This is why I haven’t written anything in about 6 months. 6 months ago exactly I made a promise to share my journey in my own time with all these readers but the truth was that my journey wasn’t over. There was another destination and more lessons ahead to share.
So the big question remains, why suddenly begin again today? Today, on July 28th at 8 pm, right this very minute as I am writing this entry is the exact very minute that I stepped on that plane to go to Vietnam and watch my very life force blossom into something I couldn’t ever imagine.
(entry from day 2)
“So here I am finally on the plane getting ready to take off and yet another delay. 2 hours on the runway luckily there was good TV to keep my mind off of how anxious I was. Everyone told me that once I got on the plane I would be excited. True, I was but really I was more nervous. I kept thinking “god why has it been so hard for me to get on this plane and leave NY? Am I doing the right thing”? As I started to feel the engine roar and gravity kick in for take off. Tears just came streaming down my face with only one image in my mind, the view from my street in NJ the last day I lived there with the empire state building gleaming in the sunshine against the bright blue sky spearing majestically into fluffy marshmallow clouds. Then I thought of my last two weeks and all the incredible music I had heard by many of the people I am privileged to call friends and smiled. Just then Bryant’s face came to me and I could almost feel my kitty cat on my shoulder rubbing his face against mine, in his own way telling me he loves me and he will see me when I get back.”
One thing that was present in every part of my journey was the lotus flower. Its seemed to follow me to each country and pop up in different forms. The lotus is a very ancient, sacred, and powerful plant. It grows in very harsh and seemingly inhabitable surroundings working its way up through the muck where it springs to the surface and reaches for blue skies. It’s leaves create a gentle canopy, providing shade for the bright colorful blossoms that unfold layer after layer. The most beautiful thing is after a blossom is washed away by the rains a new one comes into bloom a few days later. This is a perfect metaphor for how I discovered myself. Rising out of the muck, strong in my roots, blossoming over and over again, and unfolding petal after beautiful petal of all the gifts the universe has for me. I hope you, whoever you are, will enjoy this journey as much as I enjoyed living it.
If you want to read the beginning entries go from the bottom up to read in order. Starting with Introduction, then day 1 , etc….THANKS FOR READING!
Friday, August 2nd
It is the morning after my debut and the sun is beaming streaks of white light into my room, not that it is a disturbance to me as it is 7am and I have already been awake for at least 3 hours. The debut at the jazz club was a smashing success and the old singer was on her way to the airport so at this point I was officially solo in Hanoi. I tried and tried to force myself to sleep but knew it was a battle I could never win. Besides, I feel so guilty sleeping in, missing the day and all the world holds for me. Not like back home where, god… if only I could get another hour! I sometimes slept until 1 or 2pm without even a care because I knew all that lay ahead of me was more and more struggle. Here it was a different light that came with the dawn. A light with a million possibilities. So I threw on my clothes and headed down to breakfast.
Groggy and dreary eyed I dragged myself across the courtyard into the old wing of the hotel, where I was once again greeted with “Bonjour! Good morning Diva!” I know i am already awake but it is still hard to believe, as i am seated in the most beautiful restaurant sipping coffee, eating fresh croissants ( the real ones like you would get in Paris), while serenaded by french music. A thought went through my head……”I am not sure i am in the right place. A few weeks ago I was serving these patrons drinks, while being reminded how incompetent I was….I hope nobody finds out”
On this day one of the waitresses suggested I try my first Vietnamese iced coffee. This is a coffee lovers wet dream! Imagine a thick, almost muddy, concoction with a bottom layer of sweet condensed milk, and a frothy top that never seems to melt. I have become a bit of a coffee snob from my old days working at Starbucks but this carried me to a different dimension….I LOVE IT!!! Then after the coffee and croissants comes my favorite thing…..lunch food for breakfast! Ever since I was a little girl I have had a particular dislike for breakfast food. I know cardinal sin as an American….I don’t really like pancakes so much, I HATE SAUSAGE and BACON, and I have always found eggs to be….well…just “mehhh”. My favorite breakfasts growing up was leftover, usually cold, Chinese food or pizza. So you can imagine my delight when I was told that it is normal to eat soup, rice, and noodles for breakfast.
After breakfast on this particular day something just clicked. Who knows if it is the new caffeine fix or if is just me coming alive again, but as I walked past the potted lotus flowers in the garden after breakfast I had a new-found sense of purpose. I headed up to my room and changed into my workout clothes. It was a really beautiful sunny day and perfect for venturing out however……I wasn’t quite ready for it yet. After all I am in a foreign country…..no…a foreign continent! I don’t speak the language and, come on, my hotel is the most magical place I have ever seen so was going to soak this up!
After my many health issues in 2012 it is certain that I must make a change, not for my career, but to save my life. I was so stressed and I stopped taking care of myself. So I decided to start making working out a priority while I had a free gym to use and all the time in the world. It was only about 5 minutes on the machine when I realized “Oh Lord” I am winded and beat. I had to keep repeating to myself: “You are doing this to help your knees, you are doing this to help your feet, you are doing this to reduce your reflux, you are doing this to make you stronger and improve your energy level!” I did only 30 minutes……yikes I am out of shape. I know there are those people who live for this but for me…. the truth is I would rather spend another hour or two in bed or laying by the pool. It took only 20 minutes of catching my breath back up in my room before…uh oh….here comes the jet lag crash, and I was down fr the count until work time.
Saturday, August 3
Well today I found out what Typhoon season is! I woke up at the ungodly hour of 7am, after getting to bed at about 4am, to gloomy grey skies and furious rainstorm that was burying the palms and banana leaves outside my window. However, despite the whether I had no choice but to venture into the unknown. My mission: find a clinic and get my second round of shots for Japanese Encephalitis. This is actually a very serious disease. It is usually transmitted by mosquitoes to humans and is highly prevalent in South East Asia. It causes neurological issues like brain damage and can eventually lead to a coma and death…….so I decided I like my brain and I kind of like being alive. I won’t take any chances. When it comes to mosquitoes, my body is like one of those huge feed troghs you see on a farm. Mosquitoes LOVE ME and the line up to take a bite! I also tend to have a slight allergic reaction to them, complete with swelling, intense pain, and other disgusting and uncomfortable side effects. Lets just put it this way, I look like the elephant man and a Lepper at the same time. So….BRING ON THE DEET!
I was lucky enough to get some references from people about a medical clinic for ex-pats that is safe, clean, and less expensive than the S.O.S. hospitals. So I got in my first Hanoi cab, handed the taxi driver the address written in Vietnamese, and headed off to my appointment in the pouring rain.
As we began to crawl onto the side streets I realized that this was my first real glimpse of the city outside my palace walls. The cute boutiques, TV/Electronic stores, and about a million coffee shops and cafes. Then I started to see some familiar things like Apple Stores, that weren’t really Apple, and a little shack with an H&M logo.
Then suddenly, we came to a busy intersection and panic hit! Man I thought I couldn’t watch taxi drivers in New York. It is a whole different ball game here. The amazing thing is everyone seems to get where they are going but the is no actual strategy as to how to get from point A to point B. Red lights, turn signals, one way streets, lanes, driving the same direction of traffic (meaning i had one driver go in reverse for 4 blocks!) are meaning less here. Some of the taxis replace the rear mirror with TVs so they don’t miss their favorite shows while on the job. The goal is honestly….just get there alive. In New York it is the same but instead of heading to your doom at 90 miles per hour, you are going to the same fate at 15-20 miles per hour. Want to make a New Yorker crawl out of their skin? Drive slow with nobody in front of you. It’s quite an adjustment to come from a city where everyone is in a hurry and be in a place where the concept of “running late” doesn’t exist. It certainly doesn’t translate. However, after thinking logically I realized that taxi drivers have to drive slow, with the millions of motor bikes cutting and zooming around from every angle, old ladies who walk right into busy highways, and mothers with their little ones playing right in the streets. As absurd as it may sound to Americans, all of this is perfectly normal and universally accepted here. It is the textbook definition of orderly chaos.
Somehow, after dodging death and almost floating in lakes of water, we arrived at the doctor’s office. I was so nervous to have a shot done here. When you think of doctor’s offices in developing countries or, using the dirty word to all capitalist westerners, communist countries, you picture a shack somewhere with medical waste on the floor old rusted instruments and reused needles. Come on….admit it…..that is what most of us picture who have not traveled enough. I didn’t really know what to expect and so many people had warned me “Don’t get sick there” or “Don’t go see a doctor there”. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised when I walked in and found a normal waiting room, very clean surroundings, and friendly English-speaking staff. Astonishing as it may be I found that this visit was no different from some of the clinics and doctors offices in New York City.
For those of you who don’t know…here is how health care usually works in New York and most of the USA (and this is from the perspective of someone with insurance). There are thousands of doctors in NYC, but there are actually very few good doctors and the ones that are good are pretty much impossible to get in and see. You have to have the right connections to become a new patient of one of these doctors because they have so many patients lined up they don’t have to take you. So then you get the fun of taking your chances with one of the rest of them. Also when you are really sick and need to see someone right away FORGET IT! You are going to have to go to one of the urgent care clinics that are conveniently located all over the wealthy Manhattan neighborhoods. Even if you are lucky enough to get in with one of the “good doctors” they can’t fit you in until the end of the week and the ones who can see you are usually the quacks. One time I went to see this doctor who I thought was legit. She had an office on Central Park West and a very posh waiting room. Only when I started to look around did I realized the reason she had that address is because she is 101! The exam room literally had a bed with the old metal stirrups, you know back in the days when a family doctor also delivered babies, and furniture from maybe the 1940’s and 1950’s. They didn’t even have a computer! The doctor took all her notes on a note card then the receptionist would copy it onto paper by hand and they would file it away in an old file cabinet. So who are we to really say what is better right?
I was only at the clinic for a shot but like any doctors office , at least like the ones in NY and the states, I expected a hefty wait. I took out my book on tape ready to sink in for a while. As soon as I pulled out my headphones my name was called and 20 minutes later I was at the cash register ready to check out and pay. I almost fainted……a consultation and booster was only $75! TOTAL! The same shot in the US was $300! But I had to admit I was so relieved I didn’t have any money anyways as my security deposit for my old apartment STILL hadn’t come yet. So on this rainy day with no money….there is nothing left to do but go back to the hotel and write.
Sunday, August 3: LAURA THE EXPLORER……
So after my underwater expedition the day before, on this sunny day, I finally have mustered up the courage to go out and explore. So armed the little handy map that they give out at the front desk of the immediate area, my camera, and a little determination to be brave, I stepped out to discover the lake and the nearby old quarter.
So the first thing that hits you in mid august when you step outside in early August is 70% the humidity which is then only multiplied by the smog and heat radiating off of so many motor bikes. I manuever my way around the hotel grounds and over to the fountain where a young bride and groom are shooting their wedding photos.
I am immediately amazed at the architecture this strange cross between terracotta winger rooftops and the iron work and large pillared buildings of Paris. I come across a town square with a giant statue and I am just blown away at the beauty of this place. Every inch of the city is made to be beautiful. Even the railings on the staircases have intricate carvings of dragons and beautiful wave designs.
In this square there are little clicks of teenagers just doing what teenagers do……So I walk through them curiously taking in the scene of young boys trying to talk to the girls and ask them out and the group of girls that are trying to learn the latest dance routine from their favorite music video.
I feel a great sense of peace in witnessing this innocence in teenagers which is not something you see so much with teens anymore in the Western world. You might think that this is a good representation of kids everywhere but I remember being that age and what we were doing. Most everyone that I knew was started getting heavy into drugs, sex, and alcohol. Some people i used to hang out with in middle school didn’t make it to 18 or didn’t finish school. A sad truth about the white privileged suburban upbringing in the united states. They don’t have any physical suffering most of them feel just alone and borred so they create chaos just to feel some excitement. But this really warmed my heart to see that such earnest living still exists.
I made my way over to the lake and suddenly I am drunk on the beauty I am witnessing. A tower with the typical flared Asian rooftop and a bright red wooden bridge leading to a temple i rests majestically in the middle of the lake. Around its outer edges are giant willow trees gently blanketing families sitting quietly and staring into the gentle ripples in the water.
Just a few feet away, springing out of the water, are shoots of bamboo and lotus flowers full with brilliant pink blooms. Art installations grace the sidewalks around the lake reflecting different aspects of the district’s tradition . As I walk around I watch the large crowds that are gathered here I start to feel a little uneasy….yeah, they are all watching me. Children stop and stare at me with a confused and fearful face. Some of the women point and start laughing while them men are fixed on me as if I have a magnet in me and they can’t pull away from. Then with one mans gaze I suddenly realize why they are staring and the women are laughing. I am suddenly very aware that I have breasts. Let’s just say the are not used to breasts and women who wear form-fitting clothes and don’t feel bad showing them, so needless to say this man’s leer was not eye level. After putting on my sweater in maybe 90 degree heat I stumble upon what looks like a temple of some kind on the other side of the lake and escape into it for refuge.
It is beautiful and surprisingly secluded amongst the roar of motorbikes weaving through each other on the outside. I am the only person there. I walk past the giant Bonsai trees and drink in the smell of the insense sticking out of the pot in the garden.
Every inch of this place is covered in beauty and no detail was spared. Every tile, plant, shingle has been hand carved and carefully selected to transport the visitor into some realm of paradise. What I am finding interesting is…. all the writing is in Chinese????? Isn’t this Vietnam?
What I didn’t know is the modern Vietnamese written language was developed in the late 19th century not far from the beginning of French occupation. The older written language was in fact Chinese, as Vietnam was once part of the greater Indochina Empire. This goes to show how well the American education system is working. History was the only class I ever liked and the only thing we know about Vietnam, and its rich history, spans about 20 years from 1954-1975. In fact we still think of it like it was in the 60’s and 70’s… the Viet cong crawling out of sewers and bombed out buildings in dusty run down street corners with no power and no modern toilet. To the average American, Vietnam is still an inferno of Napalm with nothing but disease and wild jungle. So, needless to say when I told everyone I was going to Vietnam the response was usually a wince followed by…”Ooo….Really?” So you can imagine how foolish they might feel if they were to actually visit and see how much this country has to offer.
I make my way up the staircase that is made out of a stone dragon enter the pagoda interior. I have never seen so much gold in all my life. It is almost blinding and no matter what you are wearing you feel almost disrespectful in how plainly you are presenting yourself to the supreme Buddha statue sitting on his throne and surveying you lowly serfs that have come for an audience.
I feel unworthy. So I back away out to the veranda covered in lotus lanterns to look at my map and find my way to the old quarter.
This is where a seemingly magical first day out takes a different turn. Now listen, I am used to busy bustling cities. Constantly being shoved, shouting, sirens, horns honking, the homeless guy who just spit on you. Hey I lived in New York I can handle anything right? Wrong! This was a whole different kind of in your face. Mistake No. 1..well I don’t know if I should say mistake but merely a naïve decisions:
1) I decided I didn’t want to look like a tourist so I wanted to just wander without a map. OK folks….let’s be real….you are a big breasted white girl….they know you don’t belong.
2) Also trying to avoid being mistaken for the typical South East Asia backpacker, most of them having a sort of “Hey I just wandered off the commune, now where do I buy weed man?” look, I wore a nice white cotton dress but like I very quickly discovered my top was about 5 inches to low and my skirt about 12 inches to long to be considered a local.
3) I decided also to wander around at 4:30 pm on a Sunday in the busiest, and most narrow, part of town, in a city with about 3-4 million motorbikes!
I am still not sure anything can accurately describe the Old Quarter here in Hanoi. If I had to give you some approximation this is the closest thing I could say is: imagine if Chinatown in New York Had a baby with a mid-evil French town. The streets are narrow and winding giving you no real sense of direction and they are flooded with tourist rickshaws and motor bikes trying to weave around the few taxis that can barely fit between the chains of motorbikes along either side of them. All the bustling of Canal street in New York is mirrored here and amplified by 20! The shops selling cheap crap to tourists who unknowingly are paying 3-5 times the price and the smells of fish, rotted vegetables, and the sulphur smell of the men carving headstones for the recently departed. Mix that with a constant haze of smog and cigarettes. Every eye is watching the few funny looking white people stumbling around lost and stunned. I of course thought I would do my usual exploring thing which is wandering without a map….bad idea here! See usually I am good at remembering street names and can find my way back somewhere as long as I find those streets. However, things don’t work that way here because you could be on the same street that is straight as an arrow and suddenly the street is a different name. So as things got to be too much I was forced to pull out my map and give my tourist self away. All the while I am flustered and trying to find my way back, the rickshaws keep coming by….”Hey!” “Madame!” and the motor taxis “Hey! Motorbike?”.
Then comes the fun part…CROSSING THE STREET! As I mentioned, there are almost 4 million motorbikes in Hanoi. Most people drive them as opposed to cars because cars are taxed something like 200% so it costs double what we would pay to buy a car.
I was warned before coming here about the number of deaths every year due to motorbike accidents and was told to be very careful crossing the streets and always walk on the sidewalk. Now that I am here I realize what a joke that is. There is no possible way you can use the side-walk for even an entire block! Every business or café is using it already and most of the time there is no room to walk. If the businesses aren’t using it, there are motorbikes that are packed so tight you can’t find a space to put your foot down. I was upset at this at first then I thought about it….where else would they park them? They don’t have parking lots here. The sidewalk IS the parking lot, complete with a parking attendant in a blue uniform that carefully arranges them. So then I was forced to cross some of the busiest streets in the city on my first day at 4:30pm on a Sunday, thinking I would avoid rush hour…I was wrong! It took me about 15 minutes to work up the courage and cross the street to my hotel. All the while the hotel staff is watching me and slightly giggling at this first timer who doesn’t know how to cross the street. I was so tired and beaten at the end of all this, I went straight up to my room and called my mom like a little girl. “Mom, what am I doing here?” I spent a couple of hours in bed cowering under the covers before going to work.