(ii) just wanna be with you, hanoi

My favorite part about Hanoi was perching on balconies overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake or the ever present roar of motorbikes on the street below; drinking iced coffee with treacly condensed milk, creamy fresh milk, or decadent egg cream whilst listening to compilations of romantic French chansons or bopping along to the self-appointed DJ’s mix of S Club 7 and Eurythmics. Every single day we visited at least 2-3 cafes. Partly to grab wifi to plan our next stop or meet with our Hanoian compadres, but also just to feel the wind in our hair and sit cross-legged on plush cushions. After kicking up dust all day in Birkenstocks, working on that calf curvature, my favorite thing to do was unstrap my shoes and put my feet up whenever we stopped to drink coffee. That probably sounds really gross, but no one cared and it was so comforting and freeing to be outside of my rules-based existence in Tokyo.

In the course of 3-4 days in Hanoi we visited no less than 7 cafes: Note Cafe, Pho Co (2x because this was my favorite rooftop lookout spot), Cong Caphe (2x as this is a chain), Giang, Loading T (2x because the owner Sun was such a homie), Tranquil Books & Coffee, and Dinh Coffee. I have no regrets.

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the sky really was this pink as the sun set overlooking the lake…IMG_8317IMG_7772on Sunday when the street is open to pedestrians only and a festival atmosphere invades the Hoàn Kiếm District…IMG_7788life is tops at Cafe Pho Co, my personal favorite cafe…IMG_7844IMG_7840feat. my super fly manicure from Orchids SpaIMG_7873IMG_7863little girl practicing her roller blading in Lenin Park (Thong Nhat)IMG_7883.jpgVietnamese Women’s Museum [looking down]IMG_7990.jpgIMG_7969.jpgIMG_7818.jpgCaitlin was my travel partner for our 9 day trip in Vietnam. We met on move-in day for college dorms and we’ve remained good friends to this day, never letting more than a year pass before we see each other, and always in different places (so far Richmond, VA, Washington D.C., San Luis Obispo, Oakland/SF, and she visited me in Tokyo). We both have ambitious dreams and every time we reunite we treat our time together as check-ins about where we want to go next. Most importantly, I cherish the honesty in our relationship. We are both very growth-oriented and want to continuously improve and learn from our human errors and vulnerabilities. As much as friends should be cheerleaders in our lives, they should also be able to point you towards real obstacles and inspire you to overcome challenges. I love that we’ve maintained this beautiful support system and our first international trip (where we were both traveling) was definitely a friendship level up! This trip was just 5 days before her graduation from medical school. Congratulations Caitlin! I love you so much ❤

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Saint Joseph’s CathedralIMG_7754IMG_8350.jpgIMG_7942IMG_7939Dan Q. makes a Hanoi cameo…IMG_6561IMG_7875IMG_7994IMG_8392a night at the Hanoi Opera…IMG_7929IMG_7914IMG_7918.jpgIMG_8485IMG_7758IMG_8365.jpgwhen lovely strangers want to take a photo with you…

IMG_8343IMG_8341hello from the Long Biên BridgeIMG_8440One
You’re like a dream come true
Two
Just want to be with you
Three
Girl, it’s plain to see
That you’re the only one for me
And four
Repeat steps one through three
Five
Make you fall in love with me
If ever I believe my work is done
Then I’ll start back at one

‘Back at One’ by Brian McKnight is the inspiration for this blog title. It also happened to be the first dance song my brother Will and sister-in-law Priya chose for their wedding ❤

xo your friend alice

Location: Hanoi, Vietnam

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ha long(ing iv you) bay

I’m not sure if it’s because I grew up in Utah going on hikes, swimming, and camping or if living by trails and beaches in California ingrained it in me, but as much as I love the big city, nature is where I am able to rest and recharge most. We took a 2 day 1 night jaunty cruise in Ha Long Bay, an approximately 3 hour bus ride from central Hanoi, and it was as majestic as all the photos I’ve seen.

feat. Nicole, CFranswag, Lara, Thien, and hella limestone karstsIMG_6537.jpgIMG_8082IMG_8105

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xo your friend alice

Location: Hạ Long Bay, Quảng Ninh Province, Vietnam

(i) miss saigon

“Like oil on water, my memories resurfaced all the time. Today in Vietnam, one can feel a secretive, inward life that is not visible on the surface and yet is there, all around us.” – Pierre Schoendoerffer, French film director and Vietnam war photographer


I have to be honest. I did not expect to love Vietnam as much as I did. I imagined it the way many travel bloggers depict it — a tropical place with abundant and extremely cheap street food, and nearly as prolific and parsimonious backpackers. This was probably colored by my most recent experience in South East Asia last summer when I visited Siem Reap, an otherwise sleepy town that is dominated by the tourism trade due to its proximity to the Angkor temples.

I admit I am wary of comparatively affluent, Western backpackers using South East Asia as a marching ground for their wanderlust and self-appointed mission to ‘find themselves’ in a mode that can feel exploitative. But everyone, and especially young people, should feel free to make mistakes and explore without the burden of judgment; their experiences shape what kinds of people they will become. Who am I to judge? I belong to this category too. I hope that contact with Asian cultures grants a broader perspective and shapes cultural sensitivity, rather than encouraging hit and run tourism due to its relative affordability. But really, I do judge you if you visit a place for the first time and your only memories are from the inner organs of bars. There is more to a place than its booze (even if that is sometimes a significant part of a place).

Vietnam seems deeply affected by the memory of war and the scars of foreign intervention. Agent Orange seemed horrible in history books, but the reality of it was even more gruesome when faced with pictorial evidence at the War Remnants Museum. After seeing this, I declared in my own mind my intent pacifism. And yet, I question myself even on this platform. Is it enough to disavow war? Can a passive pacifist change the course of future armed conflicts? How do you honor pacifism while respecting those who sacrificed themselves for a conflict imposed by higher powers?

I’m grateful to have visited at an age too where I have learned some measure of critical thinking, because I think as a younger person, maybe at 12 or 13, I might’ve missed the strong propagandist tone of some of these same museum exhibits. The two narratives of national defeat and reunification in Vietnam post 1975 seem equally present depending on who you ask and it wasn’t always clear whether people preferred the pre or post war regime.

But, aside from the heavy historical introspection, I am happy to have discovered Saigon is a metropolitan city full of young people chasing dreams. I am grateful I came into contact with Vietnamese peers of my own age group who helped me to see it from the perspective of the ‘New Vietnam’; an emerging economy with a creative and entrepreneurial class. Thanks to my friend Dan, I met such kind people with an appreciation for mixed media, literature, and music. Having a connection with young people from far flung places makes your experience seem not that dissimilar.

Since a couple friends have asked, we enjoyed Piu Piu for dancing, The Lunch Lady for the bomb-est streetside noodles (featured on Bourdain’s No Reservations), Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa (beware the light green chilis though!), and this Phuong spot for phở (conveniently around the corner from the Lunch Lady).

feat. Caitlin Franswag, Dan QT, and Molly

optimal hangover food phở real! now I knowIMG_7570.jpgIMG_7576.jpgit was phở-nomenalIMG_7584.jpgIMG_7605.jpgbeautiful cotton candy pink Tân Định Catholic ChurchIMG_7628

IMG_7639IMG_7620.jpgIMG_7669.jpgIMG_7632IMG_7606IMG_7629banh xeo, one of the greatest food revelations I had in Vietnam. it’s a sizzling rice pancake whose golden skin is christened with turmeric powder, then stuffed with slivers of fatty pork, shrimp, diced green onion, and bean sprouts, wrapped in a big leafy green blanket and bathed in chili sauce // we made half day trip out to the Cu Chi tunnel system, about 45 km north built by Viet Cong guerrillas during the Vietnam WarIMG_7693IMG_7682we were there on April 30, the 42nd anniversary of the Fall of Saigon April 30, or the Liberation of Saigon, depending on who you ask; in modern Vietnam it’s celebrated as ‘Reunification Day’, a national holiday poised just the day before ‘Workers Day’.IMG_6219.jpgIMG_7714IMG_7621We crashed at Bunker Bed, Breakfast & Bar, with the dopest host Mike Pham, an entrepreneurial renaissance man who worked with Dan to film a series of videos featuring cultural aspects of Hanoi. Check it out here on CNN! In addition to being a really chill dude, I was inspired by his lifestyle and all the nooks of his place stuffed with all sorts of literature and art. I’ll follow up with posts from Hanoi and Ha Long Bay as well, the respectively quaint historical and natural wonder legs of the trip. (Actually I took the least photos in Saigon. There were much fewer tourists in the city so I felt goofy brandishing my DSLR even if it is small hanging fruit compared to the cameras I’ve seen out and about.)

xo your friend alice

Location: Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

Quote

the sympathizer

She believed in birth control, gun control, and rent control; she believed in the liberation of homosexuals and civil rights for all; she believed in Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Thich Nhat Hanh; she believed in nonviolence, world peace, and yoga; she believed in the revolutionary potential of disco and the United Nations of nightclubs; she believed in national self-determination for the Third World as well as liberal democracy and regulated capitalism.

I recently finished reading The Sympathizer (2015), by Viet Thanh Nguyen, and I highly recommend it. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a while and has remained in my thoughts. The prose is lyrical and amusing, yet fraught with  the realism of war and death. It made me seriously yearn to see the Vietnam of the 20th century that he describes, one that is both idyllic, textured, and brutal. The protagonist is a Communist sleeper agent who works as a cultural aide-de-camp to a prominent General in the South Vietnamese army. It follows his bisected life, from his tormented upbringing as an illegitimate child of a Vietnamese mother and French father, to his attachment to American culture and simultaneous derision of its political aims and ignorance.

This book came with me on my travels to Cambodia, Hong Kong, and Mt. Fuji in July, and helped me ponder the relationship between story and personal experience. How lovely it would be to read books about each place one travels to! And though Cambodia is not Vietnam, learning about the Civil War under the reign of the Khmer Rouge at the War Museum in Siem Reap and subsequently reading about Vietnam’s invasion and occupation of Cambodia in the late turn of the century seemed to me a well-timed confluence of history and narrative. Mr. Bun, who drove my friend and I to see the Angkor temples, made an offhand comment about how there were too many Vietnamese people in Cambodia, an indicator of perhaps underlying hostility due to this recent occupation. (It should be noted that the hostility ran both ways.)

People often think of impressionability as a bad thing, but part of what I love about reading books is being affected by them and allowing their ideas and my ruminations on them to permeate my life during the period of time that we spend together.

The above quote is about a girl in the book who rebels against her conservative and rigid military family; she runs away to attend Berkeley and becomes a lounge singer determined to create her own destiny. Maybe that’s why I so relate…

By total happenstance I was reading an anthology of travel writing and this story  about the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon led me to deduce that one of the main character’s in the novel, the fallen General of the South Vietnamese Army, is modeled after real life General Nguyen Cao Ky, a French-trained soldier and American-backed Prime Minister of the Vietnamese government beginning in 1965. Like the character, he fled to California after the fall of Saigon in 1975 despite vowing to stay “until [his] last blood”. His daughter was a singer famous among Vietnamese expatriates for her musical variety show filmed in Paris. I love it when detective work finds you.

I appreciate the author’s proposition that the only truly objective way to render a story between foes is to show the humanness and in-humanness of both sides. The acknowledgement of fault and evil perpetrated by both in the struggle allows us to recognize the complexity of these interactions, softening the us vs. them narrative of history.


Here is a cheeky extended metaphor from the book, the kind which Nguyen demonstrates mastery over in his debut novel:

While I was critical of many things when it came to so-called Western civilization, cleavage was not one of them. The Chinese might have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in simple lasciviousness, but was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb “to cleave,” which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity. The double meaning was also present in how cleavage separated a woman from a man and yet drew him to her with the irresistible force of sliding down a slippery slope. Men had no equivalent, except, perhaps, for the only kind of male cleavage most women truly cared for, the opening and closing of a well-stuffed billfold.

The book won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and collected numerous other accolades. You can read the book review by the NY Times here. 

Have you read The Sympathizer? If so, what did you think and what books on Cambodia/Vietnam should I read next?

xo your friend alice

P.S. Nguyen graduated from UC Berkeley. Go Bears!

Location: Tokyo, Japan