Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Snow Won't Melt my Heart

Ah, a month in, and still the snow fascinates me. 
Bearded Kaiju, seen here fascinated by snow.

I am from Austin, and have only fleeting understanding of the cold. Wow! It rained and all the streets are covered with a thin film of ice! Chaos! Wow! It’s so cold you can leave the beer outside! Hyuk hyuk hyuk!

Here the cold is stronger, a bitter god angry at the joys of summer. I know there are fiercer gods of cold out there, “All you who live south of the Wall are Southerners,” but I don’t ever want to meet them.

Here, the cold is an entity, not a number that measures the absence of heat. Pah! I feel myself relating more and more to the ancient philosophers who believe cold was a force and not the base state that modern physicists define it as. To think the sun is the aberration in our universe is counterintuitive to the human experience. When the sun is shining and the ‘natural state’ of the universe is melted away if just for a cloud free afternoon, my world feels right, not alien. And the neighbors agree, albeit in their obsessive hardworking Japanese way. A sunny day means a day of watching sixty year old men scale rickety ladders up onto their roofs and hurl mountains of snow atop their sixty year old wives. A sunny day doesn’t mean less shoveling, it means a joyful day spent scraping away the bottom few centimeters of ice that make the road truly treacherous. Ah, a recent convert to Celsius, I relish the 5 degree days, and positively bask when its 8 degrees outside.

For the cold will return, it has each and every time so far, and I suppose if the physicists are right, it always will, soon as we shift out of the light of our freakishly optimistic sun, the cold returns, as inevitable as the dark.

I try not to get angry when someone from Austin tells me, “oh, its’ the same temperature in Takayama as it is here right now!” I understand. I’ve made the same righteously unsympathetic statements to a friend living in Boston and my family in Michigan. A moment of equality only drives the abject misery of living in the cold deeper into my frigid bones. For a moment when—gasp—it’s a few degrees above freezing in my home town and my current residence represents a huge difference in experience. For 3 degrees Celsius in Austin is one of the colder nights, here in Takayama, it’s a warm afternoon. That difference may seem pedestrian but it is not. Cold is not something that can be thwarted with a scarf and a cup of hot cocoa. It is a merciless, relentless enemy, who sees no attack upon my sanity too insidious to employ. 

A man must shovel the snow. Even in the face of more snow
This is right, and as it should be.
I’ve woken to find all the windows frozen shut, with a shirt hung carelessly close frozen to the glass, as if it’d reached out to lick the frost and been trapped there. I’ve woken to find the olive oil frozen into a brick (It’s been too cold to put honey in my coffee for months). I’ve discovered my washcloth frozen to the shower tiles, the shampoo beyond unusable. I’ve had entire days ruined because I’ve run down stairs at the crack of dawn to turn on the kerosene heater in the kitchen (no central heat for me) only to seek refuge thirty minutes later and discover the cursed thing was out of fuel and my kitchen still a frozen wasteland. I sleep with a hat, every night. I wear two hats and six layers during the day. I rant passionately about my heated coffee table (my beloved kutatsu). I value soup above all other foods. And, when given the opportunity to spend the night in a repurposed bakery up in the mountains, I leap at the opportunity, not because a bakery sounds warm, but because a night away from home will give us enough time to wash our sheets and let them dry.

So my wife and I found ourselves whisked away, up into the mountains, towards Mastumoto. I told my students of my plan to sleep in an old bakery in the mountains and they warned me of the drive.

“Be careful, the way between here and Matsumoto is very treacherous. Its full of twisting, frozen roads and haunted tunnels.”

I nodded, thankful for the terrifying advise, but explained that in fact I wasn’t going all the way to Matsumoto, I’d be stopping somewhere along the way.

“Oh! We’ll watch the news!” one of my students exclaimed, “If a bear comes down out of the mountains, we’ll know it’s you!”

Everyone laughed at the dire predicament I’d soon find myself in, and I lamented that despite my time here, I have not developed a Japanese sense of humor.

Still, the promise of adventure stirred my frozen bones and I packed my bag with enough calories to survive a hike out of the mountain.

The drive was spent in second gear, climbing six hundred meters along mountain roads that were only ploughed when they straightened out. Between harrowing turns and bone rattling bumps of ice, we found ourselves in old twisty tunnels. I always imagined tunnels to be pushed straight through mountains, but these beasts were like something from inside an ant colony. Dull flashing lights warned us of approaching walls and sharp turns. I mistakenly asked Eric why the tunnels were haunted.

“Because so many people crash and die here,” his wife Nolico said from the steering wheel before popping out of tunnel, running a red light and smiling, “oops!”

When we arrived at the bakery, I had never been so happy to set foot on an iced over road.

It turned out our host was far from a baker. He was a guitar player that—everyone but him likes to remind us—used to tour with Deep Purple. He kept the wood burning stove stoked as he wailed on his guitar, Eric played the harmonica and I did my best to insult Eric through rhyme between sips of sake. More people showed up, including Steve, who assured me that this was as good as it got, and even though we’d only been here a few months, we better damn well recognize that.

And you know, after getting slush in my boots, and snow down my coat, after paying for tank after tank of stinking kerosene, I got it, loud and clear. Nothing is better on this earth than warmth.

Warm people, music so loud it heats your bones, and fire. Be it from the sun, that unnaturally optimistic aberration, or from wood burnt to keep out that most vicious of gods, it doesn’t matter. For warmth, in all of its forms, is as good as it gets.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Sushi: 100 yen or 100 dollars?


That one word was enough to bring me to Japan. It is a global food, an international delight, known for its simplicity and its freshness, but I must say:

 I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

Sushi is a different beast in Japan. To begin with, there are no sushi rolls. They just don’t do that here. Sushi means rice with vinegar, fish and a touch of wasabi. They look at California rolls and cream cheese with the same disdain you’ll feel for pizza with shrimp, corn and mayonnaise (yeah let me know when you try it). I have been served something wrapped in seaweed paper, sure, but it was masticated fish parts and rice, nothing more, no cucumbers, no jalapeno slices, and gods no mayonnaise. Get over the mayonnaise.

And don’t worry! You won’t miss all that crap designed to hide the quality of the fish. Sushi is omnipresent and hard to avoid in japan. It’s as ubiquitous as beef in Texas, and served in as many ways.
Mountain woman excited about massive tuna

Now, a disclaimer, I don’t live on the coast. In fact, I probably live as far away from the coast as possible, up in the mountains in the center of Honshu, the main island. Yet I am still closer to the coast than I was in Austin, and while I’ve had better in Tokyo, if you come to Takayama, the sushi is worth trying.

 There are many levels sushi.
At the bottom of the list is the stuff from the grocery store. The packs of six or eight pieces of seafood on rice is good for the price (think dollar burger at your favorite corporation) but the novelty wears off quickly. The tuna’s not the greatest, the salmon’s not the freshest, and they tend to lump a few too many pieces of mollusk in there for my taste.

Chicken, radish sprouts, miso soup, edamame, rice and
of course, tuna. Slice it yourself and its still good sashimi.
The best thing about the grocery store in Takayama is when they buy a tuna or two from the coast and haul it up for us mountain-folk. When the tuna appears, madness descends on the grocery store. Old ladies jostle for position in line, old men outbid eachother on who gets to take home the enormous fish head. If there is a whole tuna fish at the grocery store, you buy a cut because—even with inferior knife skills—you can prepare the most delicious fish you’ll ever eat at home. For about ten dollars, you can get a piece of lean red meat, the most popular of all cuts. Though if you’re feeling lavish, get the orange stuff from the same fish. It’s fatty and wonderful, and a bargain considering all you have to do is put it on vinegared rice with a touch of wasabi to make it as good anything from a restaurant.

Next up is train sushi. These restaurants literally parade pieces of sushi past your nose on a conveyer belt. Take all you want! They’ll count the plates when you leave. There are of course, varying degrees of quality at these places. I would avoid the restaurants that advertise ‘everything for 100 yen’ and go to the more upscale places that charge 2 or 300 yen for a piece of fish on rice (I know, big spender). The conveyer belt places are a great first stop for sushi because you can try all the weird stuff you’ve never seen in the states without a chef watching to see if your palette is refined enough to handle it (trust me, it’s not). I’ve tried baby squids, fish organs, a variety of fish eggs, raw shrimp, raw crab claw, raw scallop, as well as a handful of unidentifiable fish (my favorite is the purple one). Be sure to try the weird stuff in the beginning of the meal, otherwise you’ll be left with the taste of raw crab claw on your tongue.

Above that is the fancy restaurants with display cases of their favorite creatures chopped to pieces. While expensive, I’ve never been disappointed at one of these places, even in my mountain village. Though I’ve learned there is a difference between fine sushi in the mountains and fine sushi in Tokyo. When my friends from America came to visit we went to the best sushi restaurant in Takayama one day, and a fantastic sushi restaurant in Tokyo the next. Both were delicious, but the difference is clear. Here in Takayama, the fish was at the forefront of the meal. They served big slabs of whatever they’d had trucked in that morning, tuna, salmon, eel, and of course, the local specialty, Hida beef. The emphasis was undoubtedly on the quality of the fish, which was far fresher and richer than anything I’ve had in Austin, and I know, freshness is not the mark of great sushi, but I live in the mountains OK? Cut me some slack, the sushi chef in Tokyo sure didn’t.

In Tokyo, sushi masters can make even this mass of
revolting tentacles delicious!  

In Tokyo, the emphasis was on the interplay between the fish and the rice. Sushi is supposed to be about the rice, and Yazuda certainly followed this rule. His rice had fantastic texture and a subtle vinegar flavor that accented the fresh seafood marvelously. He didn’t focus on serving great hulking slabs of fish, instead he’d pair a piece of shrimp with just the right amount of course salt, or add a pinch of lemon to some creature I’d never heard of and bring tears to my eyes. He chastised my palette at first (a nice way of saying he talked a lot of shit) but I grunted at the appropriate bites so he left me alone.

As a Texan, I’d say the difference is like good steak versus good brisket. Steak is undoubtedly about the meat. You see the meat, you chew the meat, you swallow the meat, and damnit its good. Brisket though, is less about the meat and more about the entire sensory experience. The meat is still there, of course, but there’s also spices and smoke and fantastic texture, perhaps even a touch of sauce. Expensive sushi is like the finest brisket, it’s a labor of love that transforms the fish into something beyond fish, something transcendentally delicious that still somehow is unmistakably simple and familiar.
But, that being said, there’s still a conveyer belt place in town I haven’t been too… and sometimes there’s nothing better than a burger.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Magnificent Tourist Trap in Halong Bay.

Halong bay is the most utterly gorgeous tourist trap I have ever visited. To appreciate it, one must charter a cruise and venture out on the water, where the natural splendor outside of the boat will distract you from your urge to abandon ship to escape the lack of substance within it.

Halong bay is made by the same forces that carved the Grand Canyon, yet is so different in composition it boggles the mind. As we sailed past massive boulders spattered with lush vegetation and hidden caves, I couldn’t help but think of the creatures that must live in the 1,969 islands. If Japan (where I currently live) is the land of Kaiju crashing through mountain passes into cityscapes; Vietnam is the home of dinosaurs. As our boat cruised between massive thrusts of limestone, I kept my eyes peeled, sure I would see a pterodactyl hunting a giant squid. It’s a place from another time, a world all of its own that can only be appreciated by chartering a boat, and going in, but therein lies the paradox: It is impossible to appreciate Halong Bay—kayaking through caves into hidden coves, boulders big as skyscrapers floating past each other, the screech of caca monkeys at sunset—without crowding onto a boat with exactly the things we go in to nature to avoid: drunken Spaniards, pretentious Frenchmen, and loudmouthed Australians.

Really I felt like the people on our boat must typify every experience that has ever taken place on a tour bus, boat or any other confined place with limited choice of weapons.

There were: a gaggle of horny, wine drinking Spaniards, an adorable family from Korea with adorable children that needed constant reaffirmation of their own adorableness, a British photographer bent on convincing me photographs weren’t realistic, loud mouthed Aussies, a French family that hated the food, various honeymooners desperate to hide from the rest, and us- the sneering tattooed American hipsters.
So close to paradise, and yet so far away

While we cruised around the bay, desperate for a glimpse of a rare caca monkey or perhaps a brachiosaurus, I overheard debates about the history of the word selfie, complaints about how the Australian booze was—surprise!—more expensive than the local brew, and lamented how my fellow travelers’ comparison of the food on the ship to a TGIFriday’s was appropriate, but their enthusiasm for the same meal was not. 

But the bay was always there, eager to reveal hidden secrets that have been discovered a thousand times over by a thousand different people and will inspire a thousand more thoughts of our humble place in the natural world.

And, despite the company, we still managed to have a good time. When the crew offered to take us swimming, and the men on the boat (your narrator included) eyed each other warily, no one wanting to jump in and no one wanting to lose face in front of his lady on this tropical cruise, Raquel dove over the edge of the boat without so much as removing her glasses. Everyone shrieked in surprise, and despite my best efforts to follow her, the two French teenagers managed to pause the games on their cellphones, strip down, and dive in next to my grinning wife before I could so much as get my shirt off.

Oysters so fresh you need box cutters to get inside
When the cruise took us to a fishing family’s floating home, we all laughed at the family dog that lived on the nearby island, enjoyed the strong-as-battery-acid rice wine, and let our jaws drop at the enormous fish the family was fattening up to be sold on the mainland. I was first in line for the oyster the grandmother of the family dredged up from the bay and handed to her son to be cracked open with a box cutter. It was seasoned only with the salt of the Pacific Ocean, and grown by this last of the fishing families. It was delicious. Once the bay was filled with whole communities of people like this, complete with schools and shops, but Vietnam—in its communist glory—deemed the natural splendor of the bay and all its creatures and coves more valuable than the traditional lifestyle it once afforded the Vietnamese. Aussies, Europeans and the errant American are willing to pay enough money so that the people here can protect the creatures instead of hunt them.

The quagmire of this family being allowed to stay on the bay because of their ties with the tourism industry that pushed the ‘genuine’ fishermen out bothered me less after seeing the oil floating around the houseboat’s engine. I don’t know if it’s a good thing exactly, but hey, it makes for glorious views and protected habitat.

The contradiction of clinging to a traditional lifestyle and embracing the conveniences of the 21st century is a way of life in Vietnam. It doesn’t seem the façade that Japan sometimes touts so proudly. People here harvest their rice by hand because they have to, not because it’s the way grandmother did it. Our guide in Sapa had a cell phone, while in the capital of Hanoi entire city blocks sometimes have to go without power. That seems to be life in this crazy country, where a cheap beer costs $.30 and an expensive one costs 50,000 Vietnamese Dong. I don’t know if my presence as a tourist helps or hurts, but I know it’s a hell of a lot better than America’s history over here, and if all they want from me is a few extra bucks so I can experience the magnificence of Halong Bay, what am I to do but pony up with other tourists, snap as many pictures as I can, and tip handsomely.

Good evening Vietnam. I can’t wait to come back.
J. Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama Gifu with his darling wife. This is the third installment of a series on Viet Nam. Read about the rice paddies of Sapa or about Hanoi the communist capital

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Hanoi: Delicious Food and Dangerous Streets

We got in from Sapa at 4 AM, and after declining a street peddler’s proffered cigarettes and marijuana, we ditched our bags with the sleeping bellboys at our hotel, and took to the streets.

But first, a confession. I came to Vietnam for one reason really, the food. My hometown Austin has fantastic Vietnamese cuisine. And I’ve been to a few Tran clan Bar-B-Q’s and made my own spring rolls while chowing down on the family goat. When we arrived in Hanoi, I knew what I wanted most of all was to eat, eat, eat.
But alas, at 5 am, nothing was open save a French looking hotel on Hoan Kiem Lake. We sipped 
A pig on it way to market, if it survives the ride
strong coffee made with sweetened condensed milk and watched the city come to life. When it’s awake, Hanoi is a nest of crocodiles on caffeine. People zip by on motor bikes carrying ladders, bags of rice, even live pigs. Pedestrians have no stoplights to protect them, so must say their piece with god and wade out into the street if they wish to leave the block of their hotel. Street peddlers effortlessly brave the traffic to wheedle money out of tourists with offers of shoe shines, bad donuts and delicious bananas. All the while people are buying gifts, selling silk and eating on every corner.

My hunger aroused, we went off in search of street food, a simple task in Hanoi. Walk ten paces. Look around. You’re inside of a restaurant. Look at what everyone’s eating. If it looks good, get a bowl, if it doesn’t, keep walking. It doesn’t matter. You’ll find another place to eat soon enough.

We started the culinary rollercoaster with pho (flat rice noodles) beef and a generous handful of fresh basil, lemon balm, mint, and cilantro (coriander to those outside of Texas). We seasoned everything with hot chili paste and vinegar flavored with garlic. After breakfast we found a bahn my stand (as they spell it in the North) with a glistening gelatinous brick of pate. The chef—her sandwich was good enough to warrant the title—smeared the pate on a short baguette, then added chili sauce and fresh cilantro, toasted the bun, and voila, I was in sandwich heaven. On and on we ate, my mantra became:

“Babe, you know what I could go for? A bahn my and a cup of coffee.”

Everything was delicious and cheap except for the one ‘classy’ restaurant we went to, that tasted like Asian fusion food the world over. Blech. I’ll take my pho served out of a motor bike repair shop thank you very much. Trip Advisor is great, but when it comes to Hanoi, just follow the crowds.

You’ll find more than those two most famous Vietnamese dishes. We took a food tour in Hanoi, something I recommend arriving at hungry. We tried (I apologize for my lack of accents): Bun Rieu Cau- a noodle and tofu soup served with crabs found in the rice fields and Raquel’s favorite dish, Bun Cha- BBQ’d pork in fish sauce with papaya slices, eaten by dipping noodles and herbs into the soup and then devouring; this dish was my favorite and rather different from Bun Cha I’ve tried in the states, Banh Cuon Nong- Vietnamese rice flour crepes stuffed with pork and onions, Hoa Qua Dam- fresh fruit served with coconut milk and the dish we kept coming back for, fried spring rolls and finally a cup of strong coffee served with eggwhites whipped into thick cream. The experience was delicious and oh-so-satisfying, and I cannot recommend it enough.

But not everything in Hanoi was food and coffee. We met our Ukrainian friend from Japan at Ho-chi-Minh’s mausoleum and explored the bars of Hanoi together.

Guard Chicken
The first stop was a bar we’d been to earlier simply because they had a chicken that patrolled their front steps. I was instantly in love with the place because they had a keg of homebrewed beer they had to finish that night. This meant a glass of beer was going for 6,000 Vietnamese Dong, or about thirty cents. I had a couple before our rendezvous with Ho-Chi-Minh, and a dragged our friend Alex there for a couple more.

It was a lot of fun traveling through Vietnam with a former Soviet because Vietnam still flies the red flag.

“You know only Vietnam, Lao, China, and Cuba are officially communist?” he said with a grin, then shrieked with excitement and ran off to take pictures of a statue of Lenin.

We wandered deeper and deeper into the old quarter, crossing deadly streets, always eating and drinking, eating and drinking. We ended up in an alley crowded with tables serving pork, chicken and vegetables cooked on a sheet of aluminum foil over a chunk of sterno. We piled our plates high and nibbled away until midnight, when the diners all around us left, and the servers unceremoniously folded up and hid the tables and chairs.

A drunken man accosted us, begging the three of us to come drink with him. We laughed and declined, not sure what such an offer would mean in Hanoi, and immediately regretted it. For when we turned around the entire city was silent. Only police cars and street sweepers could be seen. We turned down street after street, looking for a bar, a bottle of whiskey, turpentine, anything! But alas, nothing could be found.

This is what it means to be in a communist nation,” Alex said with a smirk.

Desperate, we led him to a corner store we’d found earlier, only to find it dark and locked. Undeterred by the law of land, Alex knocked, pounded and pleaded until finally the shopkeepers let us in with their fingers pressed to their lips- to quiet us as much as to suppress their own giggles. We filled a plastic bag with big bottles of cheap beer, whispered our thanks and snuck out in between roving cop cars. We joined the other tourists drinking on the shores of Hoan Kiem Lake and sipped our beers while Alex regaled us with stories of the USSR.

“It was illegal to buy alcohol late at night, so the cab drivers always kept vodka,” he gestured to a woman selling flowers and she rode her bicycle over. He asked her for beer and she pulled out two ice cold cans from beneath her bouquets and peddled off into the night. “I like it here,” he said.

We spent the night shooting dice and finishing our beer in our hotel room. Eventually I rousted the bellboys to open the bicycle lock keeping the door shut and sent Alex off into the dead streets of this red city.

The next day we went to Halong bay, a beautiful place that—quite unfortunately—can only be experience by boat filled with tourists. But more on that next time Dear Reader, I look forward to telling you about it.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Hiking the Rice Paddies of Vietnam

Vietnam is a marvelous country.
After living in Japan for six months, I thought that I would be in some way prepared for a weeklong vacation in and around the capital of one of the last officially communist nations in the world. How wrong I was.
My wife and I started our trip to Vietnam by almost missing our plane. We made it through security to be greeted by a smiling flight attendant.
“Hanoi at 10 am?” she asked.
We nodded, relieved we’d made it.
“Gate 18. Run.”
After landing in Vietnam we discovered we hadn’t packed photographs for our visa, a necessary inconvenience for any American wishing to visit the country. Desperate, Raquel ripped the photo off of her international driver’s license and dug up a ridiculous photo of me from her wallet. The attendant nodded at the pictures, not caring in the least that they were the wrong size and color, and happily took our cash, even if it was the currently deflated Japanese yen.
Rules for crossing the Streets:
1. Don't Run 2. Don't Stop 3. Don't Worry

We made it to Hanoi and roamed the streets for a few hours before we had to catch a train to Sapa. The streets of Hanoi overflow with energy. People everywhere are eating on the sidewalks at tiny red tables and even tinier blue stools. Drivers weave in and out of each other without stopping for traffic lights, merchants balancing baskets of bananas or wide eyed tourists. The only rules on the streets of Hanoi are: Don’t run, don’t stop, and don’t worry. I think the last one’s an impossibility, yet the locals didn’t seem to notice the traffic. Some restaurants even had their kitchens (oil drums or coffee cans filled with charcoals) across from the dining areas (more tiny tables and tinier stools). Servers ran back and forth between motor bikes laden with families, ladders and live pigs to bring diners another tiger beer or tiger shrimp.
Tru guided us through the villages and farms near Sapa
We took the train that night and in the morning hired a guide named Tru of the H’mong tribe to take us through the mountainous rice paddies and villages around Sapa. It was a gorgeous couple of days. We saw women dying handmade clothes for the New Year, toothless children chewing on sugarcane, and a ninety year old man buried next to his wide on an unmarked grave on a mountainside. All the while Tru told us stories and asked us questions of the outside world. We told her about farms in Texas and about Japanese food and she told of us her people’s history, of the time her ancestors were so hungry they traded a wife for a loaf of bread, of the woman who fell in love with the tiger who stole her away from her husband.
We stopped to sleep at matronly grandmother’s house. She was of the Red Zhao tribe and was a big round woman with big round cheeks, no eyebrows, and her hair hidden inside a red cap fringed with white, an odd reminder of Christmas coming in a few days. She and her daughter-in-law cooked for us while her three-year-old grandson terrorized every living thing in his vicinity. He was an unstoppable ball of energy, always hungry and always moving, and his grandmother spoiled him rotten. At one point his father began chopping wood and the little monster wasn’t mollified until he was given a splintery log and an appropriately sized knife.  
The Master of the house, seen here without his machete
Dinner consisted of bamboo shoots, tofu and tomatoes, pork, deep fried spring rolls, French fries with pickled garlic, and greens that Tru assured me were tender and fresh—the older plants were for the pigs. To drink we had homemade rice wine, or “happy water” as the Grandfather of the house called it. This was no delicate Japanese sake. This was something closer to moonshine. I’d expect it to be served from a mason jar but they poured it from a plastic jug normally used to transport gasoline into an empty sprite bottle and then into my glass. I drank until I couldn’t, then they directed us towards the herbal bath.
I was the only person who didn’t know the enormous vat of brambles and branches simmering over an open fire for the last two hours was us to bathe in, for when they told me it was bath time and gestured to the pot that I had assumed was being used to soften more pig food, I nearly spit out my happy water. Bewildered and… happy, I tried my best to figure out if they expected me to strip down in their living room right then or wait for them to leave. Fortunately it was neither: while the patron of the house had been plying me with happy water, his son had been in another room, filling two enormous wooden barrels with what looked like very strong tea.
We slipped into this ramshackle bathhouse with rough concrete floors, a tarp for a door and corrugated plastic to keep out the elements, and stripped down. Raquel sunk into her bath gracefully as a swan, I splashed in like a fattened pig. I am not unusually tall by American standards, 6’1”, but in Asia, I am a towering behemoth. The bath was so small I had to stick my toes out of the top of the barrel while I soaked my torso, for at least then I felt more like a tea bag than a sardine waiting to be canned. After thirty minutes we stepped from the bath into the chilly mountain air, dressed and headed for bed with a nod of thanks to our hosts. Raquel loved the bath but I prefer Japanese bathhouses fueled by hot springs—even with stench of sulfur and strutting naked men—to the feeling of waking up smelling like brambles and dead leaves.
The next day we hiked out of the countryside and back into Sapa. We hung around the city, ignoring the cries of the steer vendors, be it “Go shopping with me?” or “you have beard like monkey, you buy?” and loaded onto a bus that raced down the mountainside and dumped us at the train station moments before our train debarked. Hungry and jealous of the Vietnamese couple across from us, snuggling as they savored their bahn my, we slept.
The next morning we woke in the train station in Hanoi at 4am. We declined the offered rides on the backs of motorbikes. We were in no hurry.
We found out hotel dark and locked. Having not seen a coffee shop or restaurant open so early, we resigned to wait. Nothing but motorbikes laden with meat and vegetables moved in the empty city, and I found myself contemplating the mad rush down the mountain to make our train, only to have to wait for the sleepy capital to come to life. A woman strolled by and offered us cigarettes or marijuana. She was confused why we were on the streets if not looking for drugs so we explained that our hotel was locked. She laughed uproariously and banged on the door until a hidden bellboy sleeping under a blanket in the lobby jerked to life, shuffled to the door, and unlocked the bicycle lock barring our entrance. He roused his companion, who told us simply to come back later, then escorted us out.
Thus our adventure in Hanoi began, but that’s a story for next time Dear Reader, and I look forward to telling it.
Joe Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama, Japan, but recently spent a week in Viet nam, and would love to tell you all about it!
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