Getting where?

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Tag: Vietnam

‘very knowledgable, but never a snob’

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.

Saigon. Or Ho Chi Minh. (Depending on who you talk to)

I still don’t have a definitive answer on this, so I have mostly been calling it Saigon. This seems to be what the locals call it. (And the local Lindy Hoppers!) When I was in Hanoi, I was told that most people in the North call it Ho Chi Minh, and in the South, it’s more often Saigon. Apparently sticking to that as a general rule is respectful. It’s all political, as it was renamed Ho Chi Minh to celebrate reunification and it’s all tied up in the war, although they don’t seem to expect foreigners to call it either one. I heard it called both in both places, but definitely more frequently Saigon when actually in the city.

ANYWAY. Saigon is another place I don’t have a lot of pictures of. It was also the first place I was really, really hot. About 33-35C as standard. Yuck. So I spent most time hiding from the sun when I wasn’t searching for tasty street food.

I had another great hostel where I met lovely people to hang out with who were all staying in my room. On the first day, I went with Fran from South Africa to walk around and hit some sights. We went to the museum of Ho Chi Minh City, mostly because we just happened to wander past it, where there was some history of the city along with a few tanks and jets, which seem to be everywhere. Then we went to the Reunification Palace, which is a really cool building designed by a French architect. We both thought it was a shame that it’s only used as a museum now, because it seems like it would be a lovely place for a party. Especially the wicked dance floor on the top.

Fran headed off to do a tour she’d booked for the afternoon while I checked out the bunker in the basement of the palace. Lots of old radio equipment and various war rooms full of maps, which is a bit creepy.

When I got out of there, I found a street vendor selling Kem, which is ice cream of some non-determined fruity type flavour. It’s all different colours and topped with some condensed milk and nuts and it’s delicious. Sold off the back of a motorbike, like absolutely everything in this country.

I had a look at the cathedral, where there were loads of Vietnamese women getting their wedding photos done outside (or perhaps modelling, or both, who knows), and then the stunning post office building. Then I took a very hot walk back to the hostel by way of some lunch to start the routine that has now stood for the remainder of this trip: get up early, go exploring, eat lunch, hide in the air-con or fan/shade until the sun goes back down and it’s mildly less sweltering.

That night was the Saigon Swing Cats regular Sunday social. My foot was not feeling all that great, but good enough to walk, so I decided to go regardless and just take it easy. There weren’t loads of people there because of the upcoming Tet holiday and Wednesday is their bigger night anyway, but it was lovely to meet up with people and do some fairly low-key dancing. Nothing fast and no Charleston for me, which is SO FRUSTRATING BECAUSE CHARLESTON IS MY FAVOURITE, UGH, INJURY. But I think I managed to not push myself too hard. The excellent sangria on offer didn’t hurt either. AND I met at least one person who was going to the Big Bang – Eric, who’s American but living in Bangkok at the moment – so I’ll have a familiar face when I rock up at the Bangkok socials.

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again. It was such a wonderful thing to go to a social and feel at home in the world. Everyone there was so friendly. And there were other people traveling too (Eric plus a girl from Portugal who had even convinced her non-dancing friends to come along), so you get people who immediately understand you from two different directions. It just made everything worth it all over again. Even the heat.

The next day I went to the War Remnants Museum with Hannah and Eric (different Eric), a couple from Canada who were also staying in my room. We wandered around on our own once we were there, which is good because I spent the whole time getting increasingly pissed off and upset at America. BIG SURPRISE.

There’s a letter to Obama from a 23 year old woman who is a 2nd generation victim of Agent Orange which they’ve enlarged on the wall, and it’s just near the end if you go through things in the order they suggest. She’s admiring him for how he raises his daughters and how he believes in opportunities for all, but then asking why he doesn’t help 2nd and 3rd generation victims get the compensation and help they deserve. This is after you find out that the chemical companies were eventually forced to pay American victims but the Vietnamese have never received a cent. One of these companies is Monsanto. The same one that fucks over farmers around the world, but especially in America, on the regular. These companies are on par with murderous dictatorships. They are pure fucking evil. Unfortunately they’re protected by capitalism and the government and god knows what.

I am well aware that plenty of Americans were against the war in Vietnam. I am not going to go into my own specific politics on any of it. If you read this enough you’ll know I’m a humanity-loving, socialist-leaning pacifist. Suffice to say we should never have been there. We had no business doing any of it. And I don’t think we’ve learned from that error, in terms of the decisions being made today about the military. (And god help us all if maniacs vote Trump into office.) It’s really depressing and it’s a wonder the world doesn’t hate us a lot more. Luckily though, so many people are generous and forgiving. We seem to be on the receiving end of that a lot more than we deserve. But that’s precisely the foundation of my faith in humanity. So.

ENOUGH ABOUT THAT. We went to a cafe to recover from the misery and eat lunch. They had a locally brewed IPA from Pasteur Street Brewing Company that was the nicest beer I’d had in weeks. Not lager! Hooray! And after the requisite hiding in the hostel aircon for the rest of the afternoon, Fran joined us and we all went for dinner.

Epic rice pancake with coconut meat which was bigger than my head.

Epic rice pancake with coconut meat which was bigger than my head.

The next day was mostly wandering around and finding amazing food to eat. Fran joined me again for coffee and lunch, where we had Banh Xeo (rice pancake, which the Saigon version of is HUGE) and Banh Khot (little fried rice cakes with stuff on top), which we practically rolled away from. Those little fried rice cakes were probably my favourite thing in Saigon. But the pancake was good too, and the Pho I had for dinner at a place just down the alley from our hostel which was consistently busy was also amazing. (Although if I had to choose, I preferred the northern style Pho in Hanoi.)

I wish I’d had more time in Vietnam. I definitely preferred it to Cambodia. I could have paid for a visa, but I was being cheap. I’d have liked to see some of the Mekong Delta and the mountains in the north. But I maxed out my 15 days, so it was time to move on.

Hobbling around Hoi An

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


When I got to the China/Vietnam border, I met a guy called Duccio from Italy in the exit queue for China who’d been on the same bus. I wasn’t sure how I’d not noticed earlier, seeing as he was the only other Westerner, but it was way early at the bus station and I was WAY tired. In any case, we stuck together for the rest of the process, not least because we were both going into Vietnam on the 15 day visa-free stamp with nothing but an email printout to prove our exit by the correct date. So if we had trouble, at least we wouldn’t be alone.

We spent an hour in the border queue and after a tiny bit of confusion over his entry (but none over mine strangely) we were through and back on another bus towards Hanoi before too long. Duccio had been studying Chinese for 3 years and was just on a break from his University programme before flying back to Italy for a while. We had a good chat on the bus, during which he mentioned how difficult it is to travel in China alone. Even when you know a bit of the language! I felt vindicated. I WASN’T just being a whingy wimp for the past week, it really was quite a task to handle solo.

The bus stopped for super cheap, tasty lunch at the side of the road somewhere, and then 2 hours later we were pulling into a bus terminal in the south end of Hanoi during rush hour. We had very little cash and the taxis at the station were likely complete ripoffs anyway so we decided to make the 3km trek to the old quarter on foot. (This is probably the last time you’ll ever hear me say something like this on this trip because once I left Hanoi, everything got way too hot to be walking with a massive backpack for 3km.)

And thus we were welcomed to the terrifying process of crossing the street in Vietnam. Utter chaos. Motorbikes and cars coming at you from every direction. Lanes are not really A Thing. You just have to walk out and keep a steady pace so they can judge your speed and get around you. It takes some adjustment, but you do actually get used to it. Crosswalks are going to seem so luxurious when I get back to the UK.

The weather in Hanoi was a bit grey and rainy, and that didn’t change the whole time I was there, but I didn’t mind. The locals were all bundled up in huge coats, but I was walking around in a t-shirt for the most part because 12C is pretty warm as far as my recently-in-Siberia body is concerned. But people never stopped asking me if I was cold.

My hostel was lovely and small and friendly and quiet, tucked away in an alley off one of the old quarter streets. I really got lucky in Vietnam with hostels. All three places I stayed were perfect. Excellent breakfasts were included, the staff were super helpful and friendly, and the other guests had the same non-party travel style I do.

This was a marked contrast to Duccio’s hostel. I went to meet back up with him so we could wander around and find some dinner and he was staying in the epitome of a party hostel. I walked into the bar and was there 5 minutes before the American bartender got on a microphone and informed the entire bar we’d be getting a free shot as he taught us the Vietnamese equivalent of ‘cheers’. After which he announced the happy hour and ladies night specials and proclaimed, ‘let’s get fucked up’.

It was like a bad college frat party movie. I was SO happy I wasn’t staying there. It was really amusing to watch the drama outside these sorts of places from the street though, so at least they had entertainment value.

Anyway, we went and found a little street food hotpot BBQ place and had a pretty incredible dinner plus beer for next to nothing. All the beer here is pretty much lager, but the Hanoi beer has been my favourite so far, and there was plenty of it. At 50p a bottle I could pretty much afford to drink as much as I wanted. There was also Bia Hoy, which is fresh beer that’s brewed to be consumed the same day. It’s about 3 or 4 percent and nothing special, but it’s also the equivalent of about 15p a glass, it’s cold, and it’s cheaper and easier to buy than water. (There are ladies selling it on the street everywhere in the old quarter.) So I did not turn my nose up.

One of the biggest shocks of arriving in Vietnam was that after nearly 2 months of encountering very few Westerners, they were now EVERYWHERE. It was bizarre and slightly comforting yet unsettling all at once. I immediately knew traveling in Vietnam would be easier, but potentially also more irritating as things got more touristy.

I had an early night despite the availability of cheap beer and the next morning I went on the hostel’s free student tour. Three girls from the local university walked around with me for a few hours to practice their English and show me some of the main sights. We went to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum (no pictures allowed) where I saw one of the two embalmed men on the planet. (If only I’d managed to see Lenin in Moscow I’d have knocked them both out on the same trip!) Apparently Ho Chi Minh’s wish was to be cremated and spread equally in the north, central, and south parts of the country, but when he died that request was ignored. Because communism? The girls didn’t know.

We also went to the Temple of Literature, which was nice, but then it was STREET FOOD TIME. We went for Bun Cha, which was one of my favourite things in Vietnam (I had it again before I left Hanoi), and then some lemon tea, which was more like still lemonade. We sat on the standard tiny plastic stools drinking, eating sunflower seeds, and talking about how our countries were different and how they were the same and how we were all generally worried about the same stuff. It was really nice.

For that night, I’d put out a message asking for meetups on Couchsurfing and a guy called Eddy asked if I wanted to eat dinner with him and his friends. I was starting to feel a bit unwell (possibly from that last Chinese street food) but I didn’t want to say no. He actually showed up on his motorbike and was like, get on! All I could think was if my mother knew I was getting on some guy’s motorbike in a city on the other side of the planet without knowing precisely where I was going, she’d probably smack me senseless. However, he had good feedback and also a motorbike is much easier to jump off of in an emergency than a car is to be escaped from. I decided it was fine, and it was.

What was NOT fine was riding on the back of a motorbike for the first time in some of the most terrifying traffic I’ve ever experienced. In the rain, too. Eddy lived a 40 minute ride out of town and I was already feeling wonky, so that ride wasn’t exactly the most pleasant thing I’ve done in my travels. Eesh. We did stop to buy dinner supplies at a super local market where he just drove up to the stalls and bought things without even getting off the bike, which was really cool. I wish I could have taken pictures, but I was a bit too shell-shocked from the ride to even attempt to reach for my camera.

Dinner was a bizarre and wonderful experience. Eddy lives with his girlfriend in a small one-room flat, and she cooked while we had a chat. His English wasn’t the best, but we got by. He was the only one of his friends who spoke English though, so once they all showed up, We all sat on the floor around the food and I listened to them joke and talk in Vietnamese. It was really cool to see them all doing pretty much what I like to do at home with my friends, and the food was delicious. Fried frogs legs, which Eddy said was one of his favourite things, fried chicken wings, and fresh spring rolls with egg, lettuce, pork pate, stir fried beef, and rice noodles, which we all assembled ourselves. And after that was all gone, we had the nicest fresh watermelon. I wish I could have talked to more of them, and I also wish my stomach hadn’t been acting up, but in general, it was an amazing night. Luckily I got a taxi back into town. I don’t think I could have handled another motorbike ride in the dark. I went to bed early again to recover from my Day O Cultural Experience.

Dinner at Eddy's

Dinner at Eddy’s

The next day I was still feeling a bit crap and it was rainy and cold again, so I went to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, which was absolutely fantastic, then got some ginger tea and fried rice that arrived in a pineapple, which reversed my mood and also seemed to quiet my stomach. Later on I went out to find Pho (finally!) with a South African guy called Grant who was also staying in the hostel. We managed to find one of the best places in the city, with a queue of locals spilling onto the street and some SERIOUSLY good soup. We then went for beer with a view, followed by (much cheaper) beer on the street and swapped entire life stories the way you do when drinking with fellow travelers.

My last day in Hanoi, the temperature actually dropped even further. During the day. The locals (and Australians) were horrified at this development. And now even I needed a hoodie. I had an overnight train to Danang to wait for but it was really too miserable to walk around all day so I hung around the hostel common room watching movies, booking future dance events, writing, and periodically going out to feed myself. Lunch was sticky rice with about ten different kinds of meat on top and was once again phenomenal.

I didn’t take many pictures in Hanoi. I liked the city and it was full of lovely architecture, but really difficult to get good pictures of, not least because of the rubbish weather. It was mostly about the food though, which, along with the universe chucking me a sign it was time to seriously slow the hell down (as I’ll elaborate on in the next post), was the continuing theme in Vietnam. And I am totally ok with that.

Road Rules: Semester at Sea

It seems MTV might have actually influenced my life in some significant, non-musical way. I’ve been thinking about this lately, and I’ve been struggling to come up with something to write all day long. Now, about 8 hours before my self-imposed Monday deadline, it clicked that THIS is the thing. And once I decided to write about it, I ended up finding it all online and took a happy trip back in time to my high school mindset, and to when reality TV was a bit less polished and pervasive. (See, Kate, having a standing writing assignment almost always turns out to be a good thing.)

Remember Road Rules? I was never big on the Real World, and I was never even that big on Road Rules in general, but the Semester at Sea season stuck with me. I never knew you could do something like that in college! Study abroad, sure, but what was this madness about going around the world? It might have been the first time I even realised that was a feasible thing you could do, and that people did do, in college or not, on a boat or however. And I was plenty old and wise enough to know by then that if MTV was glamourising people doing it, and paying for it, it was sure as hell possible to do on your own, for less money, and involving much less drama.

That was really, REALLY exciting.

(The other reason the show maybe stuck with me is because I had a total high school crush on Pawel, the photographer. But I promise that’s not the only thing I remember about the show. *ahem*)

Anyway. I watched that season religiously. It aired in 1999 when I was in 10th grade, right when I was seriously starting to look into colleges so I remember I was all over looking into how to get on that boat myself. And I know I looked at it again when I was considering study abroad programmes IN college, but it was too expensive and didn’t quite match up with life at the time. Regardless of that though, it got me thinking about the possibility of long-term travel years before Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman infiltrated my brain with a need for the Siberian beyond.

Aside from being completely fascinated by all the College Stuff going on (and the shaving your head when you cross the equator thing), one of the challenges that I always, ALWAYS think about when I think about traveling is the one in Vietnam where they had to spend LOADS of money in one day (12 million Vietnamese Dong, which was $866 at the time), and if they managed to spend it all, the same amount would be donated to charity. But the catch was they couldn’t buy any THINGS. They had to spend it all on services and experiences. So they had a super fancy meal, got their hair done, got massages, hired locals to be their guides for the day, that kind of thing. The point was to put money into the local economy, support businesses, and get the money to the people. And I remember thinking what an awesome challenge it was. And I STILL think it’s awesome. They had a really hard time spending all the money, but they did do it.

The internet is truly a wonderful beast, because here’s the episode, so you can watch it for yourself.

Maybe this is in my head right now because it’s Christmas time and I’m trying to get all my gift stuff done and in general, I really hate buying random shit for people that doesn’t mean anything. I feel disgusting if I get something for someone just for the sake of them having a gift. Because what’s the point? Where’s the love in it? And I’d much rather get someone an experience, but that’s expensive and tricky and it’s so hard to pin anyone down these days that it’s easier in the end to get them something they can use or read or whatever.

At the same time, I’m trying to save all this money, and I feel like I should probably just not bother myself thinking about it for the entire month of December because I might just explode if I worry about how much is currently flying out of my accounts in the name of the holidays. All I can do is make sure that the shit it’s flying on is stuff that will truly be appreciated, rather than just useless tat with a ribbon on it.

All this to say, isn’t it so much better when you spend your money on something that provides a lasting memory rather than a thing that you can lose or break? Like, I’m just as bad as the next person when it comes to Cool Stuff. I bought a freakin’ dinosaur tail phone stand today for no reason other than it’s a dinosaur tail and I’m a sucker for dinosaurs. I am The Actual Worst.

And having ITEMS to remind you of a place you loved is no bad thing, but in general, the reason you want those items is because you want to remember the place they came from or what you were doing when you found them. I remember that particular episode all the time 15 YEARS LATER and I wasn’t even the one HAVING the experiences. It was just a brilliant idea.

Imagine that. MTV producers doing something that was memorable for reasons other than sex or manufactured dramatics. I guess the good old days really are gone.

ALSO. You guys: College. ON A BOAT. I’m not sure I could have handled how ABSOLUTELY bonkers that would be.

(Also also. I just now did some Googling and Pawel is still a photographer. Of cars mostly, which he is clearly quite gleeful about. This warms my heart right down to the cockles, and has made my night.)