It’s been a long time since I’ve posted, but Getting Where owes a lot to Anthony Bourdain.
Five years ago, I went to eat at The Kitchin in Leith – my first, and so far only, Michelin starred restaurant experience. As we were seated I looked up to find that I was put directly under a photo of the chef with Anthony Bourdain. I was happy about this, and I know at the time I definitely commented on it. It’s as though he was there to remind me that, while eating in such a lauded restaurant was an incredibly tasty and amazing experience, the really good stuff was elsewhere, and much more accessible.
Would I have jumped onto the back of someone’s motorbike in rainy Hanoi, zoomed to the outskirts of the city in some of the most incredible traffic I’ve ever seen wearing a borrowed helmet that didn’t really fit my massive western head, half terrified, half amazed as I watched my host buy ingredients from a local market without ever leaving the bike? Would I have sat on the floor of a stranger’s one-room apartment with a group of friends who didn’t speak my language, laughing, eating fried frogs legs, being shown how to wrap my own spring rolls? Would I have ignored my mother’s cautions in my head and put myself in for such an amazing, home-cooked meal if not for Anthony Bourdain’s influence?
I think it’s unlikely.
Bourdain was on my mind quite a lot when I was travelling, but particularly in Vietnam. I ate in a small handful of restaurants, but none of them were anywhere near as good as what I got walking in the street or sitting on tiny plastic stools. Not by a long way. Anthony Bourdain was the first person to put the idea in my head that that sort of thing was worth seeking out.
And thank god. There’s the kind of food you make at home, and the kind of food you get in a fancy place with a sommelier, and all manner of things in between. But what I really want when I go away from home is the kind of food other people make at home.
It’s weird to tell people you’re sad about someone famous dying. Particularly when that’s not the sort of thing you usually get affected by. No one really knows what to say to you. Not unlike when anyone else dies you’re sad about I guess. But there’s no point of reference when people don’t know what someone might mean to you.
I didn’t watch him much on TV, but Bourdain’s writing and opinions on food and travel had a tremendous influence on me. That influence continues to lead me to some of the best experiences and flavours in my life.
But the thing about this that tears me up even more is how our brains can sometimes win against us. And that we still haven’t worked out what to do about the more sinister parts of our inner chemistry.
The drive to create and explore makes you better, but in my experience, it also often comes with crippling self-doubt and all manner of other hard stuff to fight through. And my experience doesn’t even include addiction, so I can only imagine how that amplifies and twists a challenge.
You can be smart and honest and creative and prolific and kind and thoughtful, but you can also be disintegrating from the inside. I try as hard as I can to remember this about people, particularly when I’m feeling awful myself. But it’s very hard to remember the inner lives of others when your own is so loud.
I went to see Anthony Bourdain read at the Edinburgh International Book Festival when he was touring on Medium Raw. (I took a vegetarian with me. She loved it!) He was insightful and amusing and did a great job putting the snobbery of some question-askers right where it belonged. It was fantastic.
I did not wait in the ages-long queue to get my book signed. I never know what to say in those situations, and I also decided my time would be better spent in a pub with a beer and some good food talking shit with my friend. So I skipped the signing and went for the pint. I like to think he’d have preferred to do the same.
For me, it’s ok that I never got to say hello or thanks. The best I can do is keep eating everything I can try without discrimination, and encouraging others to do the same. And the next time I sit on a plastic stool with a hot bowl of something delicious, I know who I’ll be thinking of.
I woke up on the train to Danang to find the family who’d been in my compartment had gotten off sometime very early in the morning. I was alone, which was nice, but I was freezing. The air conditioning was turned up so high that I could see my breath. I found this hilarious considering I’d just come through Russia on trains that were storming through frozen Siberia but heated to sauna-like temperatures inside. NO ONE knows how to regulate train interior temperatures, it seems.
So I stood in the corridor with mostly everyone else, warming up and looking at the coastline along the last hour of the way. It’s pretty stunning. But I also saw how rough the water was, so I had an early indication I probably wouldn’t be swimming anytime soon. Apparently this was all caused by the same storm making Hanoi very cold.
I met a guy called Rob from Boston in the corridor traveling with his 9-year-old twins, Ella and Dylan. They were also headed to Hoi An, hoping to go on the local bus like I was, so we went off to find it together when we got off in Danang. I don’t spend a lot of time around kids, so this was a bit of a novelty for me.
Rob was a teacher on sabbatical so they were all traveling for the year in China, and they were just taking a few weeks break in Vietnam. By the looks of things, the kids were handling it pretty well. I didn’t talk much to Dylan because Ella latched onto me and talked my ear off about eee-verything from summer camp to how old her father was to what they did for their birthdays in Hong Kong to Goldfish and Cheez-its. When I asked what they missed about being home that was the main thing. Goldfish and Cheez-its. And they were really excited to find them when they were in Hong Kong. But overall they seemed to be enjoying themselves, and I was super impressed that Rob was doing all of this on his own. In CHINA. I’ve already told you how hard China is. I can’t imagine having to look after two kids in addition to myself there.
We all got to Hoi An in one piece and went our separate ways. I didn’t run into them again, but I’m sure they had a good time. Hoi An was a pretty chilled out, easy place to be. So chilled out that I decided almost immediately to spend 5 nights there instead of 3.
Coffee AND ice cream
My continuing efforts to try the local crap wine everywhere
In town with my trusty steed
Spring rolls and Cao Lau
Perhaps my brain knew what was about to happen, because the next morning, when walking out of the shop where I was getting shoes made (more on which in a minute), I stepped wrong on the lip of the sidewalk, rolled my foot, and pulled a tendon in it. And inside my head, I just went ‘FUUUUUUUUUCCCCCCKKKKKKKK’.
I have not had an injury since I started dancing and I knew it would happen sooner or later, but this was just a little over a month before the Lindy extravaganza I’ve been looking forward to in Bangkok, and I was immediately worried about HOW injured I might be and how long it was going to take to heal, particularly while traveling.
I hobbled back to my hostel (which was actually quite a long walk when your foot is screaming in pain) and asked the owners if there was a doctor nearby. They were so lovely and helpful, the owner’s sister took me on her motorbike to a local clinic where a doctor had a look, did some crazy ultrasound treatment which was super strange, had me ice it for 10 minutes, then gave me painkillers and anti-inflammatories and told me it was not broken (relief) and it would start feeling much better in 3-4 days, but I needed to elevate it and ice it and all that stuff as much as possible. (All that cost me about £4.)
Hoi An was probably the best place for something like this to happen because it’s not some huge city with mad traffic and everything all spread out. I was able to do more than just lying around in the hostel by using a bicycle to get everywhere. So I spent the next few days going between various places to eat and drink, and the shoe shop and tailors where I was getting stuff made while doing as little walking as possible.
In addition to lanterns and food, Hoi An is known for its tailors, and there are also a bunch of shoemakers there. I had been planning to get a few things made from the minute I decided it was going on the itinerary. What probably put it there was the fact that the website for the Vietnam Lindy Exchange (which is held in Danang and Hoi An every year) suggests getting vintage repro done there during the event. I am tall and I have broad shoulders. I’m difficult to fit at the best of times and I have almost zero patience for sifting through charity and vintage shop racks to find something that fits AND that I like. So this, to me, was potentially the best idea ever if I could find a good tailor. And I did!
I love. This dress.
Based on a few blogs and Tripadvisor reviews, I went to Ha Na tailors, and they made me some great stuff. I got a copy of my favourite tea dress with a few adjustments to make it even better, and then I got them to make a 30s style dress, and a 40s style pair of garter trousers and buttondown top, all based on things I’ve found on the interweb and knew would never fit me properly off the rack. They did such an amazing job (and they didn’t do any hard selling). The dress in particular is stunning and I can’t waaaaaait to show it off at the Big Bang vintage party. AND it’s machine washable, which is like music to my cash-strapped ears.
I got some shoes made as well because I have enormous feet and the only dance shoes I can buy in my size are canvas sneakers. That suits me fine, but I have ZERO vintage-y, fancy options because none of them are made in my size. So I got some flat t-straps and also some brogues. I’ve not been able to wear either of these yet, so I really don’t know how well they’ll hold up or how comfortable they are. But even if they only last a year, they cost less than cheap shoes most normal-size-footed people would buy on the high street, and they’re probably much better quality. So I’m happy with them in that respect.
I had to try these shoes on with one swollen, non-functioning foot though, so that was a bit of an issue. The ladies in the shop were laughing at me because I kept doing swivels and half-assed (PAINFUL) suzie-qs across the floor to see if the shoes would be comfortable to move in and if the soles could take it.
When I wasn’t in the tailor or shoe shop getting things adjusted, I was eating. Eating eating eating so much. Or drinking iced coffee. But mostly eating.
I went to Anthony Bourdain’s favourite Banh Mi shop about ten billion times (…ok 3). I had Com Ga (chicken rice), Cao Lau (Pork noodles in strong broth), Banh Xeo (rice pancake), spring rolls, fish, papaya salad, and a banana pancake nearly EVERY morning at the hostel because the ladies there made them so well that I couldn’t bring myself to order anything else.
I also drank a lot of cocktails and beer and more Bia Hoy. And met some fun people in my hostel who hung out with me even though I slowed them down a bit with my hobbling. One of the girls, Lisa, was from Luleå, Sweden, and I was like, ‘I know where that is because one of my favourite bands is from there!’ She had never met anyone outside Sweden who even knew who Movits! were, and I’ve never really met anyone but my friends Duncan and Dan who know who they are, so that was kind of cool.
Hoi An by night
The famous lantern market
Going over the bridge
Streets all lanterned up
I managed to meet Wayne AND Emma of New Year Train fame because they both happened to come into town from different directions while I was there. I met Wayne in Dive Bar one night (so called because it’s the home of the local dive centre), which had outstanding cocktails. I had the first Negroni I’ve had since summer and it was The. Best. They also had live music on from this French girl who was playing various covers and amazing gypsy jazz. Then I met Emma on my last day before I had to leave at night for the train. We had drinks and lunch and rode bikes out to the beach for yet another cocktail and it was lovely.
Farms on the ride out to An Bang beach
Obligatory beach selfie
I actually went to the beach 3 days in a row, basically as soon as my foot felt like it could take a small walk. The first day was cloudy and the water was so rough they had ‘no swimming’ signs up and the lifeguards were there simply to keep people out of the water. But I had a nice walk and a lounge and a pina colada. It seemed walking in the wet sand was actually good for strengthening my foot back up, so I went again the next day. It was sunny, but the water still wasn’t swimmable. The third day swimming was allowed but I was with Emma and I had no bathing suit with me so I just figured I’d wait til Cambodia. But this beach was much better than what I had been looking forward to in Cambodia (which you’ll hear about later) so it’s a shame I didn’t just stay even longer.
I hopped on a late shuttle bus back to Danang to catch the night train to Saigon, and driving through Danang at night was crazy. It was lit up like Vegas. I don’t really know what the place is like, although Eddy, my Couchsurfing dinner host in Hanoi, did tell me it was his favourite place in Vietnam. The beaches did look good and it also looke dlike there was some cool stuff along the river. All the more reason to come back for VLX I suppose.
The last train?
View from my compartment.
Anyway, that train was probably my last train of the trip (unless I decide to take the one from the Thai border into Bangkok), which I guess was a little like closing the book on one big part of the whole thing. It was so anti-climactic though. Everyone else in my compartment again got off fairly early in the morning, and the rest of the trip was during the day so I was not surprised that no one paid for a soft sleeper for that portion of the trip. there was no one to share the final moments with, so I napped and drank overpriced coffee from a vendor who hopped on at Nha Trang and stared out the window at some incredible landscapes chugging by one last time.
PS: As I write this, roughly 3 weeks later, my foot is at about 85%. Not perfect, but the alarming-looking bruising has gone away and I can more or less walk normally. More on how that progressed in following posts. I’m a week away from the first chance for social dancing in Bangkok, and two weeks from 3 straight days of dancing, so I’m hopeful that it won’t be too big of an issue.
If we are the guardians of the environment, obligated to do our very best to protect the natural world—if that natural world, increasingly, exists only at our pleasure and as the result of much hard work and vigilance, are we not also our brothers’ keepers? Where is that line, that balance between the needs of man and that of the incredible, graceful, terrible, gorgeous creatures who still manage to survive in what passes for the wild?
I sure as Hell don’t know.
from a great post on uncomfortable questions raised in the course of travel