Friday, January 27, 2012

In Sickness and In Sickness: A Honeymooner's Travelogue


First, the good news. 





It turns out that Hanoi is NOT like the rest of Vietnam, or vice-versa, thus every place Sean and I have traveled so far on our Honeymoon of the Damned (more on that later) has gotten more beautiful, more lush and certainly more navigable, and (most delightfully) filled with better and better food. 

 A few readers have emailed me about the photos of food I've been including, complaining that the pornographic quality to my food posts are a particularly cruel form of torture, as I've now provided them with the gustatory itch they can never hope to scratch, an itch perhaps especially plaguing to those in Salt Lake City, a place which, though filled with a number of very fine restaurants, has nothing Vietnamese-wise that can compare. To them, I offer my sincere condolences and would promise to stop posting photos of food except (again, so sorry!):

I can't.  

So (cruelly) pictures of the great street food I've been eating will be nestled in here, maybe--yes--like little bombs of soul-crushing culinary disappointment for you to experience. Who knows. How you, dear reader, take it is up to you.

Now, onto the bad news.



Sean and I have been in Sa Pa for a week, hiking around the tiered rice fields and generally being engaged in  two somewhat culturally dubious activities, the first being what the local tourist bureau calls "Ethnic Minority Viewing" and the second being honeymooning. "Ethnic Minority Viewing," rather like honeymooning itself, is an eye-opening but occasionally stressful activity, as it forces you to engage in behaviors outside your comfort zone, like negotiating with a half-dressed 10 year-old for a pair of earrings or, in the case of honeymooning, having your picture taken together in front of a water buffalo. "Ethnic Minority Viewing"  serves continually to remind you of--even as it attempts to make you forget--the role you play as a tourist. The fact that, in any nation today, a four year-old child's first instinct upon seeing a stranger might be to say, in English, "Yes, you buy! Yes, where you from? Yes, you buy from me, please," is incredibly depressing. Not as depressing, perhaps, as coming across the naked baby slumped by its mother who, when seeing you, automatically lifts an upturned palm to you in the universal sign of begging, but pretty damn close. 

And of course, there is always the question about the value of seeing what it is you're seeing. Or, as I put it to Sean the afternoon we hiked around the lower part of Cat Cat valley, "Why exactly does everyone think travel is such a great thing to do anyway? I mean, what exactly is it good for?" At the time I was asking this, Sean and I had just stopped for drinks at a tiny, derelict stand by the river where we stayed to observe some pre-Tet village life unscroll before us, including watching a group of young men trundle a pig trussed on a bamboo stretcher up a hill. ("That's a journey a pig makes only once in its life, I think," Sean said grimly, after they passed.) There were chickens to be killed, sacks of rice to be carried off, whole loads of bamboo to be cut and marched up the various hillsides. Meanwhile an array of children ranging from infancy (naked from the waist down due to lack of diapers: an ingenious if unsanitary way of dealing with the toiletry issue) to somewhere around seven years old stealthily began to crowd around Sean and me where we were sitting. The kids, at first totally indifferent to our presence except as potential buyers, had slowly come to regard us as objects of increasing interest, as in "What exactly ARE two fat Americans doing up here, sitting and drinking warm cans of year-old diet Coke?"

The short answer was: We were lost.

And lost, to a certain extent, we stayed. 

Because traveling in a third, or second, or developing-world nation like Vietnam, you can get pretty exhausted by the hard sell that is one's day-to-day experience in the smaller towns: a hard sell that's as necessary for the local merchants as it is totally soul-besmirching for the tourists. At the end of the day, anonymity like what we had just barely begun to experience that day by the river is something to be longed for and given up as a pipe-dream as fantastical as the one of you might have of imagining that you are the first foreigner to have visited this region of choice. You, of course, are NOT the first visitor to this region: you are in fact just following the paths of so many other tourists who have made their way here, seeing what everyone else has seen, buying what others have bought, doing what so many others have done. If you are one of the "nicer" tourists, perhaps you have refused to photograph the H'Mong without their consent; if you are one of the "artier" tourists, perhaps you've begun carefully cropping your photos to make it seem as if all modern technology is absent to the region. Regardless, you are those kids' meal ticket, and traveling to their far-flung hamlet is, for you at least, all about "improving" yourself by being witness to a kind of poverty which, if borderline globally abject, is at least presumed to be aesthetically pleasing. When I ask "What is travel good for," perhaps I should amend this question to "WHO is travel good for?" The answer to that is complex, as of course tourists do make a region more economically stable, at the same time it might make it culturally unstable. But what exactly does the tourist think she's getting?


The more I sat there, talking with Sean, looking at the kids looking at us, all of us inching closer and closer to each other on our bench filled with our cans of Cokes and our capped cameras, the more I was intrigued by the whole notion of tourism throughout history. Maybe, I said to Sean, the only difference between the American traveler of the 19th Century and now is  that, the 19th Century, travel was meant to be improving the American traveler through exposure to cultures assumed to be culturally "greater" than that of America. Now, it's about improving the American through the visual cataloguing of places and people that are economically far far worse off.

"Maybe," Sean replied. Just as one of the kids lunged forward to show Sean his new and totally fabulous toy: a spinning jenny made of clay, around which a grimy piece of rope had been wrapped.

It kind of reminds me of that definition of documentary studies I read years ago in The Michigan Quarterly Review. Documentary: behind the camera, someone with a grant; in front of the camera, someone on food stamps.


And here I was, with my camera and my grant.

Anyway, traveling together through these areas, both Sean and I had to admit that we both felt kind of, well, ill. Both literally ill--as Sean had arrived with a vicious cold cleverly imported from the States, which I quickly caught--and figuratively ill, as now we were trolling around these gorgeous regions feeling like economic parasites.

That was the good news this week.

The less good news is the fact that, two days after Sean arrived, I had to drag him to the doctor's office to deal with a recurring but very minor ear issue I'd been dealing with since France, then the very next day had to find ANOTHER medical clinic to get antibiotics for Sean who, swiftly upon his arrival to Vietnam came down with a sinus infection. So here we were on our honeymoon, one of us with his pockets stuffed with antibiotics, the other with her nose turned to a meat-colored, leaking spigot. 

But at least we were still eating.



And at least Hoi An, which we traveled to later, was beautiful as well. 



And then, a miracle: three WHOLE days that neither of us were ill! We were ecstatic. To celebrate, we went to find a street food stall that specialized in those fabulous rice paper "roll ups" of BBQ pork, fresh herbs, cucumber and a spicy peanut dipping sauce I'd fallen in love with. (Thanks for the rec, Linh!) It was fantastic. If you have  never had the experience of eating a food that you knew within minutes you were genetically destined to eat, food that the gods themselves had created with you in mind and which had perhaps been specifically designed for your very SOUL, then you need to go to Hoi An, find Ba Le Well restaurant, sit down and prepare to be served.

It was so good, with its steaming and endless piles of succulent BBQ pork on skewers, its heaps of fresh sesame leaves and basil and mint and cucumber slices, it's piping hot nem ga, its bowls of peanut dipping sauce, that I couldn't stop eating LONG ENOUGH TO TAKE A PICTURE. That's how good it was. 

So imagine my disappointment then, when I looked across the table at my beloved husband, himself happily chewing on a freshly rolled pile of piggy goodness, and saw--with horror--his face instantly pale.

I knew, even before he told me, that he'd broken a tooth.



And now, dear reader, I was faced with a terrible choice. Do I stay, or do I put down my food, get up from the table, and rush my husband off to find the nearest dentist? Of course, I knew I should do the latter.

But that would mean putting down the pork.

"Oh my God!" I cried, with as much sympathy as I could muster while AT THE SAME TIME shoving another whole hot roll into my mouth. "Let me just arghjhrgurmpgingksheowfhkhsarghjeherg!" I cried, or tried to, as now my mouth was full of food. 

Sean sat staring, numbly, at the broken crown he'd just spit into his hand.

"Oh, honey, what terrible armnunumnumnumnum!" I tried again, while finding that my hand (again) had managed to stuff yet another roll into my pork-roll hole.

I think that phrase came out wrong.

Anyway, there I was, trying desperately both to comfort my shocked and less toothsome husband and to Leave No BBQ Behind, because--as I told Sean, who'd begun clearing up the shards of his cracked tooth--it would be a crime, a CRIME I say!, to leave so much pig on the table. "Think about those children in Sa Pa!" I think I tried to say, in some sort of dubious and completely ill-conceived fit of moral do-goodery, but by then Sean had paid for the bill and was waiting for me in the alley so we could go off to find, yes, our third medical clinic in two weeks.

"Well, even if this honeymoon kind of sucked the life out of us," I told him later, "at least, we can say our travels really DID improve us, medically speaking."

Sean sighed and kissed my head. "You smell like pork," he told me.




  1. Who is travel good for is a good question. I think most travel is a waste for Americans, for most of the middle class really from any first world nation. They do it because they think it will improve their outlook on the world, not just by visiting poor countries, but by visiting countries rich in culture as well, and they do it because they have excess money and the television has told them it's more intelligent to go to Vietnam than to Cancun. In the end the average middle class American doesn't like stepping out of his or her comfort zone, and they would really prefer club med where their every need is catered to.

    I would like to say much of my travel has been different, but I cant really. Most of the places I have been have amounted to a few nice photographs. You need more than a few weeks to really learn anything about a place. The culture, the social structure, the politics etc... I think when you can live in another culture then you can gain a deeper insight into life. You can compare the results of a societies actions and edifice against your own.

    In South East Asia poverty is part of the trip. One of my most memorable moments was taking the bus from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. About an hour and a half into the ride we stopped at a large building for a bathroom break. To get to the bathrooms you had to walk by 50 or so tables of Vietnamese people weaving almost photorealistic rugs, who had all been born disfigured from birth in some way from the chemicals in agent orange. It's the kind of thing that can't be put into an American perspective—it's the kind of thing that shouldn't be put into any perspective. Does it make any westerner better for seeing it. I don't know?

    The only place I have ever been where there hasn't been a hugely significant trail of tourism is British Guyana. There wasn't the hard sell there, I did feel isolated because of my obvious difference to the rest of the population—the women were very welcoming, but I wasn't entirely comfortable because we were hanging out with the moneyed group of the two dominant coteries(half black from african descend and half Indian), and our associate felt it necessary to show us that he carried a gun on his ankle within 20 minutes of landing at the airport. I was there for a month, and despite the above it was one of my favorite experiences. It didn't feel manufactured, and It didn't feel like I was exploiting anyone, I was just a stranger, who was looked at as being out of place. I got to see how private security forces work, I got to see a small section of the drug trade and I had lunch and dinners with grifters and criminals. In addition, I made an appearance on Guyana Today, I got to experience the fear of seeing a 6'5" tall man who was covered in scars and looked to be made out solid oak walk towards me, wearing only tattered shorts, carrying a three foot long machete and live in the house Jimmy Carter stayed in when he monitored the Guyanese elections. Do I think I'm was improved by that experience? I don't know, I don't know the alternative. I will say I liked all those experiences, and like you I didn't like my walk through the villages surrounding Sapa, which leads me to believe that more people should stay home—for my sake anyway;)

  2. >>you smell like pork.

    : hasn't Comme des Garcons made a whole perfume series based on this proposition?

    (so good to read these posts.)

  3. Dear Essae: Thanks for your thoughtful comment! So much you've written above intrigues me, and I'm certainly in agreement with a lot of your feelings, especially the ambivalent ones. I, too, don't know if it makes the westerner "better" for having seen something as horrific and as moving as what you describe, or if it simply makes us more voyeuristic about other people's pain. The optimistic side of me wants to believe that it creates a greater cultural understanding and shared empathy. The cynical side of me thinks that most of us--including me, guilty as charged--look at it all as some grand photo-op. I have more to say, but I think I'll be saving it for a post I'm working on in the future, that will respond in part to some of these excellent questions you raise. Lisa: Comme des Garcons really should have done a line of perfume in pork flavours, if they haven't already. What was that line Sephora had a few years back that had perfumes that smelled like eAngel Food Cake and Dirt and Gin and Tonic? I'm thinking this line needs to come back.