Selling all my possessions and facing the unknown.

We believe that letting go of our material goods somehow means we won’t be a whole human being. But does donating or even trashing that haggard teddy bear our eighth grade boyfriend won us at a carnival really mean we are less than we were before? When I decided I needed a drastic change and began paring down my thirty-six years worth of baggage into two suitcases, a strange thing occurred. It slowly felt right to finally be free from defining myself by my possessions. I felt I was returning to a natural state of being.

Many mementos held cherished memories. Others held the worst of my life’s traumas. For so long I had to hold on to them to hold on to myself when in actuality the opposite was true. I had to let them go to find myself and that was terrifyingly freeing.

Perhaps we hold on to the past because if we didn’t who would we be? We would finally stand fully in our present power and actually have to take responsibility for how our lives turn out each moment. The scariest part? Trusting yourself with yourself. The fact is, we are not our past. The past and the future are not real. They don’t exist. All that is…is right now…and right now…and right now.

No matter where you go, there you are…and so are your insecurities.

Insecurities don’t get left behind with that couch you gave to charity before you moved or that box of cookbooks you sold at the garage sale. They’re always with you; like a terrible 70’s song stuck on repeat and drilling into your temples until you think you’ll go full werewolf if you don’t find respite from it.

No matter what their culture or background, I haven’t been to any country yet where the people weren’t desperately trying to hide their own insecurities from the rest of humanity. It is the human condition and always will be. Accept it or let it grind you to dust. It doesn’t change a thing. Others will try to make you feel small to make themselves feel bigger. We are all absolutely terrified of others seeing who we believe we really are-which is usually the worst possible view we can have of ourselves.

I am guilty of the same facade. It’s exhausting to keep myself in check in the moment and not let the reflexive display from others probe me to react. It is easier to lose my sense of self by playing the blame game. Our sarcasm, cynicism and judgements are ultimately successful in distracting others from seeing our own perceived flaws. If we’re pointing out what’s ‘wrong’ in others, it’s almost impossible for them to see what’s ‘wrong’ with us through the ruffling of their own feathers.

But the more I travel, the more I notice it happening in myself and those around me. By recognizing it more I’ve actually been able to change my automatic responses to all the Houdinis trying to trick and misdirect me away from SEEING them. The fragility of the human ego is all-consuming. A monkey on our backs doesn’t even touch the epic power of the ego. It is an alpha silver back; violently whipping broken tree branches around and bearing its teeth to prove its bigger then any self-love we may acquire. And beware when things actually go our way! Then it turns into fucking Kong Kong; beating its chest on the highest peak it can climb and roaring in our ears that we’ll never be good enough.

But sometimes…once in a while…you meet a person who, even if only for a split second, show their true self in all it’s Technicolor terror and insecurity. In that moment it’s not only incredibly refreshing but also heartbreaking beautiful. That is when I love people as I would an abandoned puppy or a dear friend, or a lover. We are all terrified of revealing our vulnerable filthy selves for other people to crush with their opinions of us. Why? Because we truly believe that we are a failure…stupid…ugly…dirty…worthless. When the truth is…we are all scared, struggling children.

To see ourselves and love ourselves as we would a dear child is the final step to being comfortable in our own skin. And, my God, can you imagine the freedom and wonderment life would hold if we simply let it happen?

When you’re feeling very small and insecure…

Just remember that you’re standing on a planet that’s evolving
And revolving at nine hundred miles an hour
That’s orbiting at nineteen miles a second, so it’s reckoned
A sun that is the source of all our power
The sun and you and me and all the stars that we can see
Are moving at a million miles a day
In an outer spiral arm, at forty thousand miles an hour
Of the galaxy we call the ‘milky way’
Our galaxy itself contains a hundred billion stars
It’s a hundred thousand light years side to side
It bulges in the middle, sixteen thousand light years thick
But out by us, it’s just three thousand light years wide
We’re thirty thousand light years from galactic central point
We go ’round every two hundred million years
And our galaxy is only one of millions of billions
In this amazing and expanding universe
The universe itself keeps on expanding and expanding
In all of the directions it can whiz
As fast as it can go, the speed of light, you know
Twelve million miles a minute and that’s the fastest speed there is
So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure
How amazingly unlikely is your birth
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space
‘Cause it’s bugger all down here on Earth

-Monty Python – Galaxy Song Lyrics

HANOI, VIETNAM: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 12

9 April – 2 May, pt. 5: Thaison Palace Hotel, Old Quarter, Hanoi

Adrian Cronauer: Mayday! Mayday! Dragon-Lady with incredible figure at 11 o’clock! Stop the car.
Edward Garlick: I can’t do that, sir.
Adrian Cronauer: Aw, Edward, you don’t understand. I’ve been on a small Greek island with a lot of women who look like Zorba, I never thought I’d find women attractive ever again. And now that I do, you won’t even turn the car around? Thanks a lot.
Edward Garlick: You have a very important meeting with the top brass…
Adrian Cronauer: -Oh, there she is again! How did she get ahead of us?
Edward Garlick: That’s another person, sir.
Adrian Cronauer: She’s beautiful and quick. Speed up, check her stamina. Oh my God, they’re quick, they’re fast, and small. Ha, ha, ha, ha! I feel like a fox in a chicken coop!

Robin Williams, as Adrian Cronauer in “Good Morning, Vietnam”

The People and the language of this country are, well, interesting. Let’s get started,

The People
In general terms, the people are friendly, but they have manners that could be construed by westerners, including myself because I never got used to it, as rude or even downright disgusting, especially with the men. Street peddlers can be aggressive and annoying, but some people we met were extremely generous. No one here has apparently ever heard of the term “personal space”. They love to touch you, sometimes inappropriately. They are not aware that from our perspective, there are boundaries. It seems like a blindingly obvious social rule to us, but it doesn’t exist to them! Like every member of the human race, they are judgmental, and they prefer to pass judgment on foreigners in their own language.

The Language
Make up a bunch of words that rhyme with “gong” and “home”. Now, do that while simultaneously imitating the sounds of a cat in heat. That’s what it sounds like to most Americans. We tried learning the language to a certain point, but once we realized we weren’t staying, we kind of gave it up. We found that saying “thank you”, like in Hong Kong, brought smiles to the locals, especially the woman I buy cigarettes from. We also learned to say, “no problem”, “sorry”, “hello”, and “excuse me”. I think we did pretty well most of the time, because we mostly got that smile and a bow back from people. We also found that the younger the people were, the more inclined they were to want to speak and learn English. I even taught some of the hotel staff some of our more “colorful” metaphors.

The Hotel Staff and Guests
We made a lot of friends in this hotel – some fellow guests, but mostly the staff, many of whom my wife became Facebook friends with. The guests were more hit and miss. There was a big ugly man from Austria that had a Vietnamese woman for a wife. She seemed VERY submissive, and he was just a misogynistic prick, blatantly checking out every attractive woman he saw. And he constantly complained, loudly, about what was wrong with this place. I kind of get it, but at some point, just shut up and leave! Then there was the hippie expat who now lived in Baja. He was a very nice guy, but damn, he could not stop talking! He could have you trapped in a conversation for over an hour without getting a word in edge wise!

Almost everyone on the staff was friendly, nice, and generous. The housekeeping staff were shy, but polite for the most part. One of them looked a little like a pissed off Himalayan cat, but when she’d leave after she was done with her shift, having already changed out of her uniform…damn, she had a body on her! The girls at the reception desk were all so sweet to both of us, and just beautiful. One of them could’ve EASILY been a model had she lived in America. Another one felt close enough to me to cry in front of me over a man she loved living in Malaysia, but whom her family didn’t approve of. They are both on Facebook with my wife, as is one of the doormen, who gave my wife a Buddhist beaded bracelet. He was a sweet kid (21 y.o.), as was our closest friend here. His real name is Phu, which in Vietnamese translates to “rich”, hence his Anglicized name, “Richie”. We always spoke at night, smoking, sometimes having a beer or two. If you’ve been on my wife’s Facebook page, you probably saw a video of him and me singing. She also has pictures of him with his girlfriend. Together, they are so adorable, had we had the money, we would’ve adopted them! They look cute enough to be in a commercial for the ASPCA, without the sad Sarah McLachlan song.

 

But one guy heavily contributed to us hating this place. His name is Joe, the one that greeted us when we checked in here. Picture the stereotypical snake-like brother-in-law, who works as a used car salesman. That was Joe. He was not meant to be a day manager for a hotel. This place also runs tours, and he was more concerned about that, than taking care of the issues in this dilapidated hotel. Hotel staff are supposed to be about customer service, and as someone who has worked in customer service for a long time, I know what that’s supposed to look like…and it doesn’t look like him. He likes money WAY more than he likes people. In fact, I’m not too sure if he cares about his guests at all, unless it’s somehow profitable for him to do so. If you are ever in this part of the world, stay away from this hotel!

The Men
Men here are incredibly lazy, with the exception of those previously mentioned on the hotel staff. I see tons of them, spending the entire day, sitting in front of cafes, drinking tea, coffee, or beer, and smoking with other guys, doing nothing, while their wife works, takes care of the kids, cooks and cleans. They are rude; they love blowing snot-rockets wherever it strikes them, and based on what I saw, they may have invented “man-spreading”. To the few that have jobs, I apologize for this generalization. But to the rest of them, get off your lazy fucking ass and help your wife out for a change! I will give them one thing though. Unlike America, there is NO rape culture here. In the household, and in most businesses, the woman is so in charge, I don’t think it ever crosses their male minds. They know most of their wives could take them in a fight, or belittle them to the point where they’d be rocking back and forth, curled up in the fetal position if they tried. Still they have access to all the money, whether they made it or not, because all laws here still favor the man in terms of divorce and finances. So all the women here need to do is kill their lazy-ass husbands and make it look like an accident!

The Women
Now we’ve seen women, AND men, of all shapes and sizes here. We’ve seen a few bigger girls, even a one or two that were taller than us! But if I could sum up the women here in two words it would be: stunningly beautiful. That’s not just a description of them physically, though. Yes, most of them are 5-feet, 6-inches, or shorter, slender build, but some are just slim all the way down, but most, to put it delicately, have some curves (guys, you hopefully know what I’m alluding to). But their personalities, once to talk to them for any length of time, are beautiful too. Speaking from a platonic perspective, they are sweet, soft-spoken, and very polite. And their manner of dress is stunning, more formal than our own, and meant to accentuate the female form. It is impossible not to be enchanted by them, so long as you only LOOK, if you’re married (like me). If you’re single, though, and you’re patient with them, take things slow and respectfully, and can put up with all the other crap here, in the long run, I’m sure you won’t be sorry.

Well, that brings us up to date. Tomorrow, May 2nd, we check out at noon, not a moment too soon, take a taxi to the airport, and wait for our flight at 5:30, and head to Hong Kong to spend the night in the airport, until our flight to Taiwan the following morning at 9:30. However, despite any difficulties as a result of spending a night in an airport, we’d rather spend a night in an airport in Hong Kong, than spend one more night in this Vietnamese ‘hotel’. And we’re looking very forward to going to cleaner, if not greener, pastures. I already have a lot of options to teach there, so things are looking way more promising than they were here. Still, a couple of things to keep it in perspective for you, and especially for me:
The other day, I was standing outside our hotel, having a smoke, listening to “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix. Think about that for a moment. I was listening to a song that was made at the height of the Vietnam War. Now, here I am, 45+ years after it was recorded, listening to it in what used to be the capital of North Vietnam. We have gone down the rabbit hole!


It’s been only five weeks since we left Oregon, and my wife and I have seen more countries in that time, than we have in our entire lives up to now. In just five weeks, we’ve gone from the United States, to Canada, to Hong Kong, to Vietnam, and now, to Taiwan! Wow.
On that note, thank you, Vietnam. For better or worse, we’ll never forget you.

– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston

OLD QUARTER, VIETNAM: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 11

9 April – 2 May, pt. 4: Thaison Palace Hotel, Old Quarter, Hanoi

“Ooooh that smell
Can’t you smell that smell
Ooooh that smell
The smell of death surrounds you”

– Lynyrd Skynyrd, “That Smell”

Few things in this world can trigger a memory the way that your senses can. That being said, I’m going to have a lot of unpleasant memories about this place.

The Sights

Some of you may have wondered, “Why didn’t they go anywhere in Vietnam? They went to several places in Hong Kong.” That is very true, but for those of you who are uninformed about us personally, here is the answer. We went to Hong Kong for a vacation after my last job [10 years long] came to a close, because I wanted to teach English overseas. Hong Kong was a luxurious stop for us; a chance to take a real vacation in what we had hoped was one of the most exotic and beautiful cities on earth. It was. Vietnam was where we decided to look for my first teaching job. So until I found work, we didn’t want to spend the extra money on trips inside the country. So we didn’t see the beautiful places of northern Vietnam, of which I’m sure there are many. We pretty much saw the Old Quarter, which isn’t quite so pretty. If you look at just surface stuff, you’ll see beauty here. The old French architecture, some of the sidewalks paved in old marble from the days when this was French Indochina, Hoan Kiem Lake, situated just 3 blocks from our hotel. However, look closer, and it’s not as appealing as the photos you can find all over the internet: The architecture looks run down, and covered in city grime that NO torrential downpour can wash away; the garbage of tossed away food, cigarettes, even feces, scattered along the sidewalks and curb-sides. Hong Kong was as clean, if not cleaner, than most American cities. By contrast, most Americans, including myself, would be disgusted by the sight and smell of just how dirty this place is.

The Smell

It was rarely pleasant. At best, tolerable. Most of the time, you smelled the moisture in the air. As soon as you step out onto the street most days, you are in a perpetual state of moistness. It’s like being a Duncan Hines pudding cake, but in my case, more fattening. I will say that the smell of fresh rain on a humid night here was delightful – as if the air itself was begging for the heavens to open up. Otherwise, it smelled like oppression, heat, garbage, and cooking dog, though in the case of the last two, it was hard to differentiate. You could also smell the exhaust of all the vehicles in the city. I for one, like the smell of burning fuel, but even this place was too much for me in that regard. Overall, this place smelled like sewage, a smell that never seemed to go completely away, probably because this place looks and smells like none of it has been cleaning since the Napoleonic era.

The Sounds

With the exception of later at night, in our room, there are almost always sounds being produced, whether it’s from other hotel guests (soundproofed rooms, my ass!), or from the constant din of traffic. Outside, it is virtually ceaseless, even at midnight, and this city has a midnight curfew, obviously not strictly enforced. During the day, sound fills the air; the sound of street food cooking on makeshift Hibachis, city sanitation workers banging on their giant garbage carts to let people know they’re ready to pick up the garbage, babies crying, people shouting above the rest of the noise, and always traffic, constant honking of horns from buses, taxis, private cars, and more scooters than the number of men who have masturbated to an image of Scarlett Johansson. They are everywhere, constantly, like a plague of locusts being chased by a plague of frogs. There must be more Vespas here than in all of Italy. Which brings me to…

The Traffic

The only time I’ve seen the streets ever come close to being empty is at either 1am, or on their Independence Day holiday, last night, when everyone was at the lake, watching the fireworks display. Nothing says victory over America than Chinese gunpowder making similar sounds to what was heard when the Americans were bombing this city 45 years ago!

The traffic seems, at first, to have no rules. However, that’s not true – it has FEW rules. My sister-in-law came up the best analogy. Pretend you’re the frog in the 80s video game, Frogger. That’s it. There you go. If you’re walking, that’s kind of what it’s like here. But combine that with what it’s like crossing Alder St. or Patterson, near the University of Oregon. Time it right, and you won’t have to worry. Avoid the cars and buses, sure, but dodging the scooters is easy. Walk with purpose, don’t slow down or stop while in the middle of the street, and you’ll be fine: they will dodge you…or at least I’m pretty sure they will…I wasn’t hit. Then again, I’m bigger than most scooters.

Tomorrow it gets even more interesting, as I cover the people here. Until then…
– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston

HANOI, VIETNAM: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 10

9 April – 2 May, pt. 3: Thaison Palace Hotel, Old Quarter, Hanoi

Adrian Cronauer: Here’s a little advice: Never eat in a Vietnamese restaurant next to a pound.

Robin Williams, as Adrian Cronauer, Good Morning, Vietnam

I know you’ve been waiting to read more about everything that’s fucked up with this country and laugh at my snarky misery, so here we go!

The Currency

OK, get ready to laugh. The currency in Vietnam is called the Dong. Go ahead, get it out, I’ll wait…………..OK, done? Moving on. One American dollar is worth about 21,000 dong. If you have about 50 dollars, that’s one million…that’s a lot of dong! It would probably go further, if you ate the local cuisine, especially the street food, but….

The Food

Nearly every food travel show touts Vietnamese food as some of the best, kind of second tier behind Thailand, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Spain, France, and Italy. From my experience, I say BULLSHIT! We tried, we REALLY tried at first! We had some street food just across the street from our hotel our first full day here that was pretty good. There was rice noodles, broth, a variety of greens, chicken, and tofu. I didn’t really like the tofu, but everything else was pretty good! And they kept feeding us until we stood up to pay, and it was only about $5 for the two of us. One thing to know about eating at these street food stalls. The chairs are plastic stools that are about the size of what you’d expect in a preschool. It doesn’t even make sense for Vietnamese to be sitting in these chairs even though they’re all smaller than us. But still the food was alright. On another night, we had fried rice and what I can only describe as smoked water buffalo jerky, that our waiter was certain I wouldn’t like…but I did! Sure shocked the hell out of him! And we both liked the national dish, Pho (pronounced like the 1st two letters in “fuck”). It’s basically rice noodles in a beef or chicken broth, topped with assorted greens like mint, lemon grass , and parsley. But other than that, it was a series of bad experiences, topped off with when we went to an indoor restaurant down the street. They had burgers on the menu! Beef or chicken. Unfortunately, they told us that they were out of beef and chicken (again, a common occurrence). So my wife ordered what was called Vietnamese Spring Rolls. When they showed up, they smelled funny…like swamp ass. My wife, who’s eaten with Filipinos in Hawaii, took a bite, already suspecting what that bite confirmed it to be: Dog. Fucking dog! After that, we only ate foods that we were previously familiar with.

We went to a KFC, but their version was comparatively bland, surprisingly. They had a fast food burger chain here called Lotteria; tasted like fast food, though my wife liked their Teriyaki burger. Otherwise, we stuck to crap we could get at the grocery store and 3 restaurants. At the grocery store, we mostly got chips (they have Pringle’s here), chocolate (Kit Kat, Snicker’s, M&Ms are about the only familiar versions), soft drinks (most of the Coke brands), and bottled water (you can shower and brush your teeth with the tap water, but nothing else, unless you want to be sick in bed for a week, or worse. Dysentery is not your friend!). As for the other three, I’ll take them one at a time, in the order in which we visited them during the day.

The AB Restaurant: They offered many different things, but the ones we regularly went for were an American steak for $9 (better than any steak I ever had in America), spaghetti for about $7 (again better than any pasta we had in America), a Caesar salad for $4 (big enough to be a meal by itself, and better than most salads you can find in America) and big plate of fries for about $2. For meals, this was about the only place we ate meals at, unless we ordered room service, which we did a lot of just to have SOME variety.
Kem Ti Amo: The name combines Italian (Ti Amo means I love you) and Vietnamese (Kem means Ice Cream). The place is owned by a couple of French guys, but staffed by numerous cute Vietnamese girls who were all very nice to us, probably because we came there so often during our stay. Best. Chocolate. Ice. Cream. Ever. It was dark and rich, like eating Denzel Washington! There were other good flavors there too, but I never strayed too far from the chocolate. It was like an old-fashioned ice cream shop, with a wide variety of flavors and ways to have them. Glass dish, waffle cone, sundaes, shakes – you name it, they had it. Wonderful!


Shi Sha Bar: Shi Sha refers to tobacco with flavoring that you can smoke out of a hookah, but we never tried that. We mostly went there to drink and smoke. I usually had a Tiger beer, probably the best Vietnamese beer out there, though probably not the cheapest. My wife found here perhaps the only place in the Old Quarter that could do a decent Long Island Ice Tea. After various traumatic tourism experiences in this town, we frequented this place probably more than we should’ve, but it worked wonders on our outlook on life!

So that’s it for food and money. Tomorrow, I’ll get into the sights, sounds, and smells of this city. It won’t be pleasant.
– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston

VIETNAM: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 9

Observations of Vietnam…get ready for the snark!:)

9 April – 2 May, pt. 2: Old Quarter, Hanoi

[as Walter Cronkite] “I just want to begin by saying to Roosevelt E. Roosevelt, what it is, what it shall be, what it was. The weather out there today is hot and shitty with continued hot and shitty in the afternoon. Tomorrow a chance of continued crappy with a pissy weather front coming down from the north. Basically, it’s hotter than a snake’s ass in a wagon rut.”
Robin Williams, as Adrian Cronauer, Good Morning, Vietnam

So let’s see, I covered our lovely accommodations, which improved only slightly a week or so into it, when they moved us up one floor, into a slightly better room. Still had the gnats though, which was okay. We needed some new friends…Timmy didn’t make it. Still, we had the whole outside world to explore! The people, the men, the women, the language, the sights, the smells, the sounds, the traffic, the weather, the hotel staff, the food, the shops, the currency, the culture!!!! Turns out that, for the most part, the only good thing about this place was it gave me a lot of material to be a sarcastic smart ass for this blog! So in that sense, thank you, Hanoi! Wow, look at all that material up there, three sentences back! Where to begin….

Buddhist Monastery
Buddhist Monastery

The Culture

OK, I’m getting the hard one out-of-the-way first. The culture is, to say the least, difficult to explain, and almost as hard to grasp. Most of their oldest traditions are based on Buddhist or local religious customs. I’ve seen a lot of hotels and other shops with little shrines just inside the door, where the workers or owners drop to their knees and pay homage. Just as common in the smaller shops and cafes (almost as numerous as the gnats), is burning fake money as an offering. This is usually done just shortly before or after opening or closing, in a metal container, out on the street curb. The smell of burning paper is one of the few things I came to like here for two reasons: 1] It reminds me of campfires, and 2] It drowns out the other smells, but more on that later.

There is of course, the customary bowing, which I generally return, as long as it’s someone I like or I’m in a good mood and feeling respectful, which at times was harder to do than it sounds, but most of the time I’m courteous, certainly more so than most people I saw. I even made a point to bow and step aside on narrow sidewalks where there was only room for one person to go through, particularly when it was someone older.

The Shops

There are tiny little shops everywhere, even shops on the sidewalks, selling various convenience store items in a couple of glass cases with wheels. Cigarettes are insanely cheap here ($1/pack at most), and almost ALL of the men smoke. We saw very few women doing so, but we’ve been told that more of them smoke when drinking, again, an occurrence we didn’t see much of. There are small markets strewn all over the Old Quarter, selling similar merchandise to what we saw in markets in Hong Kong. One difference though: Shoes. There are places to buy shoes everywhere, ridiculous numbers of them. They mostly sell either flip-flops, children’s shoes, or the most frequent, heels. Really. High. Heels. They’re usually 3-6 inches, and when women aren’t working, they’re usually wearing these. Shoes are an apparent obsession amongst Vietnamese women, and they all wear heels that any woman in America would be envious of. Personally, the heels made it difficult for me to know whether they were just dressed up for a night out, or if they were prostitutes, but that’s going into the subject of women here, so I’ll come back to that later.

The really bad one is a roaming street vendor. He or she is usually older, and either walking or cycling down the streets hawking shirts, hand fans, or shoe repair, just to provide a few examples. They are tenacious. At first, we tried being nice and polite, saying no while smiling. But early on, that wasn’t working. If we were sitting, we’d have to get up. If we were standing, we’d start walking, and they’d follow us, and keep trying to sell to us. On one occasion early on, a man called to me and pointed to my shoe. While I stood there, saying no, he grabbed my fucking foot and wouldn’t let go! I finally had to lurch my leg away from him to get away. That one really began my loathing of this place. Look, I know everyone here is poor and needs to find a way to make money. But I’m not going to pay for a physical assault (Yes sir, please repair my brand new shoe that doesn’t have anything wrong with it, oh and could you get all handsy with me too? That’s how I like it! Yeah, repair that shoe! Harder! Harder!). After that, we learned that if someone is approaching you to sell something, keep walking, show them the hand, and say no, without making eye contact. Deviate from that method, and they might get you or at the very least, persist in their sales pitch which we couldn’t understand anyway.

The Weather

See that quote up at the top of this article? That summed up most of our time here. There were some days that were cooler, in the high 70s, but even then, the humidity is insane!!!! It rarely dips below 50%, and is usually above 70%. Put that together with the fact that right now it’s 11am here, and it’s 90 degrees (not Celsius, for you non-American readers), and the humidity is currently at 70%. Combine that with my furry girth, and I’m flop-sweating my way through the Old Quarter. This place does get rain, usually at night, but we haven’t seen much rain, except for one really impressive night. A couple of weeks ago, a big thunderstorm rolled through Hanoi, and we got one hell of a light show, combined with a tropical downpour that made our heavy rains in Oregon look like a shower with bad water pressure.

More to come next entry!

– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston

HANOI: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 8

Here’s my next blog about our experiences in Vietnam:) We met some awesome people there but remember…snarky venting was also needed and can be oh so therapeutic:) Enjoy…;)~

9 April – 2 May, pt. 1: Thaison Palace Hotel, Hanoi

“So I started out
for God knows where
I guess I’ll know
when I get there
I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings
Comin’ down is the hardest thing”
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Learning to Fly”

As I write this, we’re just two days away from leaving Hanoi, and heading to Taiwan. A lot has happened, good, bad, and ugly. Unfortunately, most of our experiences here were the latter two, which is the main reason we’re leaving. I’m sure I would’ve found work here, but after experiencing what life would be like here, we just couldn’t do it; not here. That was my mistake, and a bit of a costly one, literally. Had we known what our personal experiences were to be in this country, we would have saved time and money going directly to Taiwan. But we lived and learned, and our options in Taiwan are already looking promising before we’ve even arrived. So what can I say about Hanoi, Vietnam? Where do I start?

I guess the beginning is the best place. So we arrived at the hotel at about 7:00. It was already dark by then; closer to the equator, the sunrises and sunsets occur at almost the same times everyday. When we walked into a beautiful lobby, one of the hotel managers, Joe, was there to greet us. He seemed very friendly and offered to help us in any way possible. Our room was initially on the 3rd floor, so we went up to get settled. The room smelled musty, but hey, it was only $18 a night, so I guess that’s okay. Then we realized we were now lord of the flies…or gnats to be exact.

They were everywhere, and even after we bought giant cans of Raid, they still kept coming; we haven’t been without their company during our entire stay here (We even adopted a few; we had named them and just couldn’t bring ourselves to kill them. Which reminds me; Timmy says hello.). We went around, trying to kill as many of those little fuckers as possible, until we felt comfortable enough to eat. Being new here and it being late, we ordered pizza from room service. Oh, but wait, there were more problems with the room. There were stains on the bedding! They LOOKED like coffee stains, and that’s what we told ourselves it was. All the A/C’s here are mounted up near the ceiling, so you need a remote control to operate it. We had a remote, but it didn’t work very well. It kept shutting off the A/C by itself. When we got them to change the batteries, it still didn’t work right, so we’d set it to a pretty cold temperature and just leave it. But I’m not done yet! The bathroom was the source of the gnats. We think they came in through the fan venting; there was a higher concentration of them there than in the whole of the bedroom, and the bathroom was small; just enough room for a sink, a space to stand in front of it, and shower and a toilet. They had advertised a bathtub, and the shower had a place to sit (but neither of us ever dared to), but that was it – that was our “tub”. Oh, and the shower leaked…a lot! They later “fixed” it by building a barrier behind the toilet where the leak in the pipes was, with scraps of metal and copious amounts of spackle. That way, it would only collect in an area where no one went! I’m sure it was good for the floor. And on our first morning here, we realized that gnats weren’t the only thing coming through that fan vent. So was the smell of every bowel movement from every room above us! It would linger until about noon; it might’ve lasted longer, but we’d turn the fan off in the morning and keep the bathroom door closed, to keep it from spreading. That was the room. Keep in mind, we generally preferred our room to going out in the neighborhood.
– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston

SHA TIN, HONG KONG: Diary of a Mad Expat, pt. 7

Not too much snark this time. Just what to expect when you’re traveling there and how much we loved it. Enjoy:)

5 April – 9 April: Hyatt Regency, Sha Tin, New Territories, Hong Kong

So, after a melancholy drive up to Sha Tin, our cab pulled into the University district, where the Chinese University of Hong Kong is located. The Hotel sat up on a hill, towering over the MRT University Station, and our cab drove up the hill and pulled up to the lobby. The City Garden Hotel had a check out time of noon, but the Hyatt’s check in time wasn’t until 2pm. They checked us in, but a room wasn’t available yet; it was just after 12pm. So we went into their cafe/restaurant to get something to eat, and wait for our room. There, we both had a burger, strangely enough. My wife rarely likes to eat meat, but she ate the whole thing! We took our time there, had some jasmine tea, some decadent desserts and eventually, 2 o’clock came and our room was ready, again on the 15th floor. Again, they took our bag up for us. We found our room and went in.

Amazing. We had a stunning view of Sha Tin Bay, a beautiful big room with two beds, a lounge chair, desk, and a sitting area right in front of the massive windows overlooking the bay and the towering buildings on the other side. The bathroom was equally impressive. It had a separate area for the toilet, a sink with a large counter, a shower with a rainfall shower-head, and a big, comfortable, luxurious bathtub, that my wife practically moved into when we got there. I did get in there once too (please don’t try to visualize that – it will scar you for life), but baths just aren’t my thing.

The one down side of the hotel that made us miss the City Garden even more – it’s not located near anything, other than the university and the subway station. There were a few shops around the station – a tiny 7-11, a bakery, and a nice little Chinese restaurant that we discovered WAY too late in our stay – but there was no neighborhood to walk through. The nearest one was two subway stops (about 5km) away. This was an area that people passed on their way to somewhere else, with the exception of the hotel. So unless we wanted to go to the trouble of getting on the MRT just to eat (which we did do a few times), we were stuck with the local shops and the hotel’s restaurants, which weren’t bad at all, just expensive. However, we ordered room service several times, for those burgers again, and their REALLY nice breakfasts. I love room service! It was decadent, and I didn’t give a shit. This was our vacation; we were allowed to be decadent, so don’t judge me!

Buddhist Monastery entrance
Buddhist Monastery entrance

So while at this hotel, we explored the Sha Tin area, and other parts of Kowloon. We went to a beautiful Buddhist temple located in the far southwestern part of the New Territories, and I went to the ruins of Kowloon’s old walled city. We went to a mall in Sha Tin one evening, looking for a restaurant that we’d seen on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations show, but it wasn’t there anymore. The mall was filled with more high-end stores for the mainland Chinese to plunder. However, we did find a restaurant with some room there, and had a nice dinner, but it was so big, we couldn’t finish it all, a common theme here. Afterwards, we went outside and walked out into a little square, where a young woman with a guitar, a microphone, and a couple of speakers was performing soft pop songs from the 1970s (The Carpenters, Olivia Newton-John, etc.), in front of a surprisingly large group of enthralled onlookers who applauded enthusiastically after every song. It was very entertaining, and we even joined in on the cheers.

On our last full day there, we went to Kowloon to go to the Ladies’ Market and the Temple Street Market. One thing about these street markets if you’re ever over here: learn to haggle. Bargaining over the price isn’t just common, it’s expected. It’s hard at first for an American to accept the fact that you don’t just accept the price that’s given to you. Counteroffer with half of what you think it’s worth, and go up from there. There are similar shops nearby, so it’s possible to tell someone that you can get it cheaper just down the street, whether it’s true or not. It’s hard to get the hang of at first, but it’s a good thing, and will most certainly save you money in the long run. Later on, I finally had my 1st Indian food – it was almost like a spicy lamb pizza – and it was very good! Dead baby animals are delicious! Think I’m being gross? You like eggs, don’t you? Thought so. Shut up.

Random Observations

The people in the Sha Tin area were noticeably different from those in the North Point area. The people in North Point seemed a bit nicer, but quieter and more reserved in manner and dress than those in Sha Tin. I hardly noticed any girls in North Point, but it was hard to miss them in Sha Tin, because of what they wore…or more accurately, how little they were wearing or how tightly they were wearing it. It was nice to look at, but I was still a little taken aback over the drastic difference in socially acceptable dress codes in neighborhoods separated by a distance of less than 15 miles.
Pharmacies. In a grocery store or a Walmart back home, all pharmaceutical items you want, prescription and over-the-counter items, are in one section of the store. Not so here. Some items are located in separate, small pharmacy shops, scattered around town. Some examples: Feminine items for your menstrual cycle? Grocery store. Eye drops? Pharmacy. Colgate toothpaste? Grocery store. Sensodyne toothpaste? Pharmacy. Hand sanitizer? Grocery store. Hydrogen peroxide, allergy medicine, and acid reflux medicine? Pharmacy. Seems a little inconvenient to have to go to two separate places for your grocery list, but keep in mind one thing: at pharmacies here, you can also get birth control and antibiotics WITHOUT a prescription!
The children. I don’t know about you, but back home I’d seen A LOT of ugly kids. I mean, damn! Honey Boo Boo is exhibit A. Hard to find ugly kids here. They are friggin’ adorable. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to pull a Madonna or Angelina and adopt enough kids to start my own sweat shop. Still, they’re entertaining to watch, and they’re usually the first ones to say ‘hello’ to you.
The food and the people. Have I mentioned how much we loved the food and the people? Oh, nevermind, then.

View from our hotel.
View from our hotel.

So April 9 came around, and much too soon. After 8 days there, we had fallen in love with this place, and we DID NOT want to leave. But we had to; teaching opportunities for someone with no experience were not as readily available here as they were elsewhere, not to mention the fact that we already had reservations in Vietnam. So reluctantly and tearfully, we checked out of our wonderful hotel, and our driver picked us up for our little ride in a Mercedes back to the airport while we told us about Hong Kong, what the people there thought of the mainland Chinese (see part 5), and how we should visit Macau sometime. Due to the checkout time, we had plenty of time to explore the airport, look in its shops, even get something to eat, before we went through security (easy, this time) and wait for our plane. They began boarding about 30 minutes late, but otherwise, everything went smoothly. The flight was only 2 hours this time, very manageable. We landed in Hanoi at about 5:30 local time. After a lengthy wait at customs (hint?), we walked through a disturbingly quiet airport to our ride, which was waiting for us to take us into the city.

Now, I know there may be some of you who know me who might be thinking, “Richard, you were so nice and polite writing about Hong Kong. Where is that snarky, sarcastic attitude we know and love about you?” Don’t worry…Vietnam’s coming next.
– For images of our trip, please visit my wife’s Facebook page: Mischa Elaine Johnston