Craft Beers

Beers

 

It was to my great surprise that I would find a good wheat beer here in Vietnam. I have fond memories of previous visits that included Bier LaRue on ice. Any beer really, on ice. The beer here is extremely light and chuggable. Most nights traveling in S.E.Asia involved drinking some of these beers names after big cats, like Tiger, Bier Larue, and Leo. I’ve never been a fan of Chang from Thailand, but a lot of people don’t mind the Changover, I guess, the next morning. It wasn’t until the end of my CELTA training course in Ho Chi Minh City that I found some craft beers. They weren’t cheap like the others offered but definitely tasty. I’m a fan of hefeweizen, ales and lagers. Imagine how one would feel being served by some tattooed Vietnamese hipster listening to western music of their decade. It was like home.

My first craft beer was had at Ong Cao. They don’t brew their own beer here, but serve some of the best made in HCMC. Open to the street, the music draws you in. As you look in deeper toward the taps, there are some cool looking young guys with mustaches, tattoos and stylish haircuts. They serve with a smile anything you desire from the menu. In my opinion their music choice is top shelf playing American soul, R&B, and some hip hop or pop from a time that was so good in my life. I enjoy singing along with a delicious beer in my hand.

Upon my arrival in Vietnam a year ago, it never occurred to me that a craft beer scene would be on the rise. Once I moved out of HCMC and settled in Thu Dau Mot I found out from another beer enthusiast that there were quite few options to experience some good beers. I am in no way endorsing any of these places, but just letting you know they exist. Whatever your flavor, sociability and hunger, you will find a spot that suits you just fine.

One of my other firsts was East West. Located a block away from the famous Ben Thanh Market, this craft beer operation does it all on site. From the front of the restaurant you see the large brewing equipment looming over a number of taps at the back bar. The place is quite airy, being warehouse like. There is plenty of natural light. There are a few couches with low tables to have conversation. Tables for small groups and a large communal table near the taps. I went during some World Cup games and enjoyed a delicious steak of Australian beef. This place gives you an option of taking a six pack or even a case of bottled brews home. It’s not cheap, but once you have your bottles home you can enjoy them at your leisure. Drives into HCMC are long and pricy. This is one of the best options. Go in on a case with a friend and enjoy.

Along with their 8 – 10 standard flavors, they are always trying something new for limited times. The past few times I visited they had just run out. My only complaint is that they should erase the name off the board as soon as the last drop has been drunk. The hefeweizen is my favorite, but the East West Pale Ale is something to try. It has just the right amount of hoppiness that doesn’t punch the drinker in the nose and throat. Their Mosaic Pale Ale brings in another interesting taste profile that it’s nice as a taster, but too much for a pint for me. In June their limited edition was a Plum Sour that I appreciated, because it didn’t squeeze the glands just under my jaw. The staff is amazing and the food is quite delicious

A place tucked away on a small street is the Winking Seal. Now, I must say that I do go to the breweries during the day. The earlier it is open the better. This one doesn’t open until 3pm. It was empty when I arrived save the owners who are a collaboration of Vietnamese and American guys. The music is a nice afternoon ambience. There are about six different flavors usually on the menu. The flavors are adventurous and refreshing. Their food menu is extremely small and not that great. Their chicken nuggets should be chicken wings instead. They do can their beers and some flavors are available to bring home. Along with being close to a Tous Le Jours bakery, this place is a nice little stop before getting on the last bus back to Binh Duong Province, which is early in the afternoon.

Another HCMC favorite is Pasteur Street Brewing. I didn’t particularly like this place. It wasn’t as welcoming by staff or even others imbibing on the juice. The spring rolls ordered were disappointing and the beer was expensive. Why did it take so long to pour the beer? I had a taste and a beer and then left into the rain to find another place open this early for lunch beers. I ended up at Gammer. I was expecting a little more from their beer. The place is extremely spacious inside and out. They do brew their own craft beer, but there are only two flavors, Golden and Dark. They come in a huge glass and the Golden goes down quite nicely. That was it though. Not much of an atmosphere or character to bring me back, yet a good place to avoid the rain.

My favorite place in HCMC is Heart of Darkness Brewery. I don’t know why, but it grabbed me by the beer belly and we made friends real fast. Liking Ales and Pale Ales they have a quite a few different ones to choose from. Their pilsners are quite strong and bitter for my taste. I had their truffle fries and sliders that were okay. Mainly, I enjoy the beer here. There are so many to choose from. They all have some cool name from the book. My last beer is always Kurtz’s Insane, and I reflect on the movie Apocalypse Now. From a taster of 6 to pint glasses, I have yet to be disappointed. I also like the atmosphere at the bar. People are sociable and don’t mind some small talk. If I lived in HCMC I would be a regular there, especially since I found that they have live music and trivia night. Just after lunch is a great time to sit and do some blogging also.

Then there is the Hen House, serving Red Rooster Ales. Just a block away from Bui Vien walking street in the backpackers area of District 1 is a nice spot for whole chicken wings and delicious beer. This place was found on the night I finished my CELTA training. The perfect combination of finishing an intensive course and then celebrating with chicken and beer. It was a good night. The wings are large and the beers are cold. It’s owned by an American and it shows. They have a nice blond, but other flavors are available. One thing I wish they had were t-shirts and stickers. An overnight in HCMC, draws me to this place, especially if I get into the city a little on the late side.

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As I mentioned before, the craft beer scene is growing. It’s spread out to the close provinces. Here, in Binh Duong, we have two notable places. One is Bia Factory and the other is Broken Bridge Brewery. They both brew their own flavors. One is a little more polished than the next. Let’s start with Bia Factory. Walking in, it’s nice to see a regular pool table available and shuffle board. I would say in general bar games are missing in Vietnam. Brick walls are kept raw amongst the other kitchy decorations of street signs and license plates. The high stools aren’t that comfortable and that’s when I become grateful for the bar games. It’s a chance to move around a bit. Music is my style. They have a full menu of food and beer flavors. None to take home, but it’s just a fifteen minute bike ride for me. Bia Factory is located in the New City, which is a developing area with small universities and other government industry. At a certain time in the evening, the other expats pour in. This group of expats kind of stick to themselves. Even the other Black guy wouldn’t acknowledge my presence.

The most recent opening of Broken Bridge was a complete surprise. Two young men own this small operation. They offer a small selection that they are sure to grow. One of the owners went to Michigan State and did home brewing while in university. He decided to bring the passion back to Vietnam. It’s a good thing. They have an APA and an IPA available that are quite tasty. They still need to work on somethings, mostly timing and dealing with their hops. It’s nice to have something even closer to my house. It’s nice for a quick stop there after work and enjoy a few wings before going home. It’s rather small and can get loud quite quickly with just a few drunken Vietnamese. I just hope that they continue to be inspired to improve and for sure it will be successful. They do need better seating. Fuck, I need a cushion and something not so high. Am I just showing my age or do other people just tolerate drinking in uncomfortable situations. Trust me, the seats don’t feel better the more you drink.

I made it to all of the suggested places to try good beer. Sure enough more are opening. The last venue I made it to was Bia Craft. I went to the one in District 2, but it doesn’t open until later in the afternoon. Luckily there is one in District 3 which blends into District 1. Bia Craft in D3 opens for lunch and has beers called Bottoms Up (chuggable), Let’s Get Naked, and Fucking Liar. All of them were delicious. As some advice, order food to pair with the beers. Having a taster of 4 and then ordering food will confuse you. It was extremely difficult to decide what to get off of their pub menu. Everything sounds awesome. The fish and chips sounds awesome, but it’s not. It’s been my experience in Vietnam that they always get the batter on the fish extremely wrong. They fry the fuck out of it to make it crispy, but the batter isn’t light and it takes away from the point of the highlighted item, the fish.

If you enjoy beer like I do, there is a place for you in Vietnam. There is good craft beer, freshly brewed Vietnamese beer and then beer named after cats or cities.

A lot of my beer enjoyment has happened solo. It has given me time to think and put words to paper. The earlier the better, which means a bit of peace and quiet. Usually, I would have the place mostly to myself. It has given me time to talk to staff about the operations, beer and Vietnam. I like beer. I’m glad I had a little beer tour. I’m grateful to get my pen to paper in this ways also

Think beer on ice is wrong, well, you’re wrong. It’s hot here and before you know it so is your beer. Would I put ice in a craft beer? Not yet, but I probably could.

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I’m Coming Out…

I have something to admit…

So lately, I have been feeling poorly and it’s been a few months now. It’s a combination of things that have been getting me down. After news of a few American celebrities taking their own lives, I was left to wonder how I even made it this far. I’m lonely here in Vietnam. I have spent time with coworkers, but I long for someone who already knows me, It’s difficult for me at this age to get to know new people. I’ve become pickier and now see that I need to be even more so with the people around me.

I do know some cool people, but the cool kids live in HCMC. We met at our CELTA course and they lead busy lives as I do, so we don’t get to see each other often enough. I long for intimacy. I long for a pet, but I’m not quite ready to make that commitment. I also find my poor feelings connected to teaching teens. I can honestly say I don’t like teaching the teens here, yet I persevere. Unfortunately, that doesn’t alleviate the exhaustion felt at the end of each of those classes. They don’t care to learn English, nor do they even want to be in a classroom. They lack curiosity and basically teens are assholes. Luckily, as of late I have been teaching more adult classes and I am grateful to be using familiar material, American English File. I am questioning my teaching options.

Besides that, I have an annoying and awkward situation with someone I work with. I do work with a Trump supporter, but this blog is not about him. It’s an obvious problem. But I have another coworker who happens to be transphobic. This experience with them has made me quite aware of the charmed life I have lead as a transgendered man. I haven’t felt loss. I’ve always had support. In a lot of my life I never had to come out. I never purposefully lead a stealth life. I was just being me, no explanations. I was married to a woman so the world saw me exactly as it should, a man. The only time I had to think about coming out was after my divorce. It was going to be a new and daunting thing.

Now I need to back pedal a bit…I had made some “friends” here in my current city. Two women. They live in my building. We work together. One is South African and the other is Australian. I thought a friendship could grow. I thought I had made a connection. The longer we were in this friendship the more I considered coming out to them. As I didn’t consider us that close I never felt compelled to really say anything about, but it was in the back of my mind. I’m not attracted to either of them so I didn’t think they needed more information.

Well, one night after the Tet holiday I had them over to share my Duty Free whisky purchase. We got a little messy with the drinks. It got messy enough for them to go home leaving me laying on the warm not comforting bathroom tiles. This wasn’t before the Aussie blurted out, “I’d fuck you.” Not knowing how to respond, I said nothing. I almost said, no you wouldn’t. It definitely got me to thinking that I needed to same something.

I never flirted with her. I never made sexual jokes or innuendo.  We’ve never even touched in a hug, high five or hand shake. The closest we’d been was when she drove me on her motorbike. Since she expressed attraction I thought I needed to say something, and we were “friends”, so. I invited her over once more to talk. A few days had passed and the longer it wasn’t being addressed the more I felt stress. Did I mention, I hadn’t come out to someone in over 14 years.

She sat away from me and I began to explain: “I’ve never had to do this before. It can sound a bit shocking. I feel very nervous, but I’m just going to say it…If we were ever to be intimate you would need to know something about me. I’m transgendered. Of course, she was shocked. There was disbelief. The conversation didn’t last much longer. She expressed that there was still an attraction and then rambled a bit about being with women before, just not an American. I don’t think she understood that I wasn’t expressing a desire to sleep with her. I never had a desire to be involved with her in that way. The air became more and more awkward by the minute. I asked her if she wanted to talk anymore about it. She didn’t and she left.

Then there was the silence. Okay, she needed to digest the information. I get it. There were about four days we didn’t speak after speaking everyday if not seeing each other going to a café or something. It was a deep silence. Not only did I not see her in the building, I didn’t see her at work. I told her on Monday and by Friday I felt I needed to check in. There wasn’t even a message of asking how anyone was so I knew this wasn’t good.

Friday, we met up in a café were would regularly go and meet. It serves so so western food, but nothing to really talk about. I thought that if things weren’t cool it would at least be respectful to tell me where she was at with it all. I shouldn’t be chasing her to find out. She left my apartment saying things were cool and her actions said something else. We ate and I had to ask her to catch me up with her thoughts. I think it would be better to be friends. Things can get complicated. I never wanted to be more than friends in the first place, but I did tell her something I had felt was quite intimate about me. She goes on to say, It’s a trust thing for me. I don’t know if what you have been telling is the truth. I mean I get why you didn’t say anything, but I don’t know what to believe. Match drops to bridge and immediate combustion happens. In other words she called me a liar.

Now, if I had pursued her, flirted, insinuated I was attracted to her, I could understand. I didn’t do any of that. In no way did I betray trust. What transphobic people don’t understand is that we were lying before. Being transgendered is the most honest life to live. Identifying leaves only truth for us. I am a man. This is my truth. I don’t have to lie or manipulate people to be in my life and I for sure didn’t do that with her. She basically called me a liar and that’s where and when isolation, depression, and rage crept into my life.

Well, shit. I live in the same building and could run into her at any time in the parking area or elevator. We work at the same school. Slowly, and noticeably she stopped making eye contact with me. Her being cordial ended when she asked to use my extra helmet, that I had given away to a buddy as a souvenir, and I told her I didn’t have it any longer. Probably what happened is that she didn’t believe me, for the liar she thinks I am. She then stopped talking to me all together. I went back to that garden café on my own to spend an afternoon. The owner asked me where I had been. I said around. Then she told me about a small gathering that my “friends” called me about. I should have come. It was nice. Oh, I get it now, because that phone call or message never came.

I no longer try to speak to her or make eye contact. At first it was strange. I had become a bit angry, but I’m not going to go out of my way to make her feel comfortable. I am angry at being called a liar. People are going to believe whatever they want to believe. I’m not here to educate them. I don’t have to have patience for them to get it. I just don’t need shitty people in my life.

It took me a minute to snap out of it. This summer would have been my 20th San Francisco Pride weekend if I was still living there. In the past I would make brunch and watch the parade on television, then go to the festival in the afternoon. In light of American politics today and my current feelings, this year’s event is very important for me. Fuck man, even my soccer club are LGBT supporters, because they fucking get it. I miss having people around me that get it. It can be a lonely struggle.

I maintain my identity. Whatever you see, the vibes you get is exactly what you should. It’s all me and nothing else is needed to be projected. There is nothing fake about me. Not one transperson is trying to fool you. Your trust issues are with yourself not me. I don’t feel compelled or have a need to convince you of my existence. Hence, I won’t go out of my way to make anyone feel comfortable about their own bullshit.

I have quite a few people to credit for my strength. Ortgans, years ’93 – ’96. My years at UCSB were more formative than my high school and teen years. I need to give a huge hug to my family who I do tend to hold at arms-length, they continue to grasp for me. I have an old school friend who would carry me to conservative evangelical christian events in her LUV. We came out the other side much better than before. My current friends, who haven’t blinked an eye as I tell this story, I wish there were more of you in the world.

Happy Pride Month. I know some warriors out there. Thank you for your perseverance and reminders of love. Your work is not lost, nor has it gone unnoticed.

I ate all the breakfasts and relished American English

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Order anything at the Cove on Castro that has Lorenzo in the name…

 

One of the first questions a person asks me about living in another country is, What do you miss the most about the United States? I miss American breakfast. And just recently I recognize how I miss American English.

Missing food from you country is kind of a given when you live in a faraway place. It’s not like I don’t like Vietnamese food. I love it. I tend to be adventurous about it, but breakfast has always been my favorite meal, so when you go to a country that doesn’t actually have breakfast foods then you miss what you are familiar with.

I live in a country where there is no particular distinguishing between meals. They eat food for breakfast and there isn’t a structure as to what is consumed at any given meal.  Donner Kebab? Breakfast, lunch and dinner… phở? Breakfast, lunch and dinner…bánh mì? Breakfast, lunch and dinner…fried chicken with fried rice? Lunch or dinner. I can say that you will not find fried chicken for breakfast, except maybe at Family Mart, which is like a corner/ convenience store.

Most restauarants that do serve western style food, well, let’s just say that the American style breakfast isn’t one of the styles easily found or delicious. There are some things you have to let go of…I live in a foreign country and my food is going to taste foreign. So be it. Vietnamese food is great though. Korean food is good, because it’s made by Koreans. There are a lot of Koreans in Vietnam. They basically have their own district in HCMC. So, yeah, breakfast. It happens to be my favorite meal style. I once had a fantasy of owning a restaurant that only served breakfast food. I would have called it Breakfast, Brunch and Brinner. I could reveal other ideas inside of that concept, BUT since I’m still considering it, I shouldn’t reveal too much.

If you are ever in these following towns during breakfast service you should try a meal there. Look further than what I ordered, the menus can be big like the servings. But always delicious.

Esaus, located in Carpenteria, California is a definite stop I make every time I am visiting. It has a classic diner set up. It’s full of booths and counter seating. The servings are very large and so are the flavors.

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IHOP. The International House of Pancakes is found in most U.S. cities. If you’ve never been to a IHOP, I recommend that you do. As a child I remember the commercials for their Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity. I always wanted to try this pancake order. To be honest I just like them regular and unadorned except for butter and syrup. There are choices of syrup flavors. I think that is just as good as the other additions you can make to your order.

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Another great spot for pancakes is Eddie’s Cafe. It’s located in an area called Western Addition in San Francisco. It reflects what made San Francisco. There are stickers all over the place, along with SF Giants baseball paraphernalia and a collection of coffee and tea mugs chosen especially for you. I recommend the three pancake combo that comes with eggs and another meat like bacon or sausage. Their menu includes hot links, pork chops and grits. They always have some old school jams playing in the background like, Prince, Donna Summer or Tina Turner.

The Grind offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, but I mainly go in for the french toast. It’s located in the Lower Haight area of San Francisco. It was so close to my home that a free morning meant taking my iPad to watch Korean dramas and slowly consuming my delicious egg dipped Texas toast. This restaurant will keep it’s window open on a nice day. You can watch the world wonder by. The menu takes the American palate to a new level with familiar ingredients that you can pronounce.

Cafe International is not really a place to get food in my opinion. I like this cafe, because the owner and her daughter have been familiar faces from the time I arrived in the city. I like overhearing her conversations with different people in the neighborhood. She’s sassy and opinionated. I appreciate the liveliness. I used to give English lessons in this cafe. What I do like on the menu is the iced coffee. She totally gets it with adding coffee ice cubes to the drink. There is no watering down of the drink. It does make it seem like the drink is never ending. It is a powerful drink. Take a chance to sit on the patio and enjoy the mural and wall plants on the back patio.

The Cove on Castro is basically my second home. I’ve eaten there from the beginning of my days in the City. There was also a short time I was employed as a cashier. I have watched it grow and change. It’s been owned by the same family since the early seventies. It offers up the best comfort food in town. The roast beef plate with mashed potatoes was the most awesome welcoming when I first arrived back.

As far as language goes, in Asia, most schools are using books that teach British English. I have picked up some sayings in British English, but I miss the familiar accent, pronunciation and particular American sayings, even how we might talk about language. I just miss my language. In that I miss my co-workers. I worked with some nice, smart, English geeky, quirky and wise people.

There isn’t too much conversation about language in particular. Maybe differences in English from different English speaking countries comes up, but as I will explain more on my teaching blog, we don’t teach grammar. We try to get them to communicate and practice their oral fluency more. They look for more activities than lessons. So I miss talking about the use of language, especially with another American. It’s interesting enough because there are so many places to be from in the United States that American English is even more varied with arguments of standard. RANTS! The teacher’s room was a great place for not just as a language resource, but things that are relevant to me culturally.

This was to be my last visit for a good long time. Knowing that I wanted to listen to every conversation. I wanted to collect and compare idioms. I kept my ears open and thankfully the conversations I heard weren’t ridiculous and as mundane as before I left. I listened with different ears. Ears that relished and hungered for the familiar sounds as much as I hungered for familiar tastes.

Bravery, Loneliness, Suicide

After speaking to a few people, I wanted to write about bravery. First, I wanted to understand what that means for people. The meaning seems to be universal from all perspecitves: The ability to face fears, feel discomfort and the willingness to learn lessons that lead to growth.

There have been a few times in my life that I have been given this moniker. I’ve shrugged it off due to the lack of evidence from my soul. What does bravey feel like? After long thinking and reflection, I came up with this: It’s the acceptance of the palapatating heart during adversity. It’s the flexibility around change. It feels like your heart is being chewed while still in your chest cavity. It also encompasses exhileration of accomplishment at the end of the struggle, but that is only the relief at the end. I would liken the feeling of bravery to pain. Humanity does it’s best to avoid this, and I am of course excluding those careers that forces one into danger on a daily basis, there you are not allowed to question the self.

As of late it has come to mind that I don’t want to be brave. I hate the idea of just living my life equalling bravery, but at some facets that is exactly what it is. To travel and seek safety in a culture where I no longer have to face authoritarian agression, especially from perceived authority, like the every day citizen. You have to admit that certain elements in American society are now so brazen and violent. To be alone, with little understanding of language and people is brave. I’ve made a point in the past to inform my students traveling to a confusing place like the U.S. that they themselves are brave. In time these kinds of things will change the longer I am away.

The sense of bravery is slow to wear away. To acclimate the mind, body, and soul is a process that is never fast. It’s amazing to see how everything is placed. Once the dominoes are stacked in line then you have to move carefully in order to miss the chaos of their tumbling, because as humans we do not choose the design for them to collapse. It never becomes a colorful spiral or even another mosaic matching what the soul truly wants to project. Now, my heart is in the last bites and mastication. It’s ready to be swallowed. I’m ready to be swallowed, but fear the other side. Now, there have been things I have dove into not knowing the outcome, better yet, not imagining what outcomes were even possible. Yet, I made those decisions. Sometimes those decisions haunt me to this day, because the future can play cruel tricks. Create a turn where there once wasn’t. A cliff can appear and you have to decide to fall/jump off or climb slowly down. And which of those decisions is brave.

Recently, a few people have decided to jump off. Into the unknown abyss. As most were celebrities we let into our lives on a semi regular basis we are shocked and saddened. These people made us laugh, cry, question and consume. There was something about them that made us hold them close to us. No doubt there are holes in our hearts but for many others who were actually close and knew them there are caverns. I never had a Jack Spade bag, but knew of Kate Spade from the beginning. We can agree that she was extremely young to die. I enjoyed more than few of Anthony Bourdain shows, mostly before CNN picked them up. Having come to Vietnam before his first show about the country, I just loved how he was able to spin his words to match my feelings about this country, their people and of course their food.

It was a shock and I was angered by AB’s death. It happened to come at a time where I was struggling with my own loneliness and discomfort in being of this world. I’ve come to recognize that I’ve always maintained a discomfort of being in this shell of a body. The discomfort can be so encompassing that lying motionless in a hammock swinging in the breeze of an electric fan in my own apartment living my own life, relief can appear to be far from reach. I think my anger came from being left here. How could he leave when I struggle in a sense to stay? I used to think suicide was a weak action. A cop out. How dare you fucking escape?

The more I live the more I struggle to not be judgemental. It’s more my goal to come to compassion and understanding of things outside of me, especially when what is inside me is so confusing at times. I try to key in to the type of filter I am seeing the world and temper it. I try to hold the judgement down, because what the fuck do I know?

AB lived a full life. I think he just couldn’t do anymore. He literally couldn’t fit it all in. Why should I expect him to do more than him. In certain ways he had so much beauty in his life, but at the price of previous ugly. There is always a balance. He knew about escape as he had a past with heavy drug abuse. He knew about life because we watched him travel, eat, speak and expand right before our eyes. 61 is a young age. I have no idea what the next 20 years of my life could even look like and I try not to. I want to be present. We have to admit that we saw AB present. All I can do is salute him.

To those left behind, someone who knows someone who committed suicide, I know they will find it difficult to believe that suicide could be beautiful. To choose when you’ve had enough. With AB and knowing what I know of his life I find it beautiful in a sense. To have had three or four lifetimes in one. I respect when someone might think they’ve had enough. He didn’t leave without regret. His regret is felt for those he left behind. I hope they can still honor him and the struggles he did survive. He took many steps in life we all would consider to be brave. There isn’t a thing he didn’t try. I can recognize how strong he was to live as long as he did. I recognize how brave it is to grow in the spotlight, but feel the darkness inside.

 

 

 

California Love

The road was smooth. Every lane was the fast lane. I flew dơwn the 101 listening to the radio songs of my youth. The sky over the coast was clear but deceptively cool. During the day it got down right blustery during my stay in Carpenteria. I’ve traveled this particular stretch of freeway, the 101, many a time. It was like comfort oxygen being in the Santa Barbara area. I saw very few people. I laid low and walked around a bit at the UCSB campus. Walking through Isla Vista reminded me of times hanging out with some wild girls on Sueno. I recall bouncing around Sabado before returning to my own insane house on Del Playa. My time living in the central coast area has just such nice memories.

Making that drive can be exhausting, but I didn’t even try to stop. Traffice was magical. I do wish I had slowed down a bit. There were some scenic parts that reminded me of Vietnam. Particularly with a vast area of agriculture and the mountains in the background. I regret not pulling over for a minute to photograph it. The Central Valley of California is the true bread basket of the nation. This time of year a lot of the valley is lush and green with food crops.

The highlight of my trip to Southern California was staying with my brother and his small family. My little nephew turned one the day after I turned forty-five. He is a little darling. He starts off shy and slowly warms up to people. He just began walking and seems to really be concentrating on perfecting it. He would not sit still. He did laps around his living room at the end of the day speaking baby speak. I’m sure he had a lot to say, but his mouth would not let the shape of the letter form just yet. The remarkable thing was his smile. He smiles a lot. It warmed my heart when he reached out to me at different times.

Compared to my sister-in-law’s family ours is very small. I feel for my brother as he may feel a little bit of emotion as he doesn’t have family to quickly reach out to. I’m in Vietnam and our parents are in Texas. He might feel a little isolated… I imagine that I would. Well, I do feel that way on the other side of the world. I have a slight tug at my heart that I should be here in the States for my little nephew, but I admit to being selfish. I tell myself that I actually live far away for my nephew. His name is Atlas. I am collecting proof that there is so much world to see. I hope that one day I can show a little of it to him and he becomes a brave traveler on his own. I’m an absent son, brother, and now an absent Uncle, but I am absent with a purpose. I don’t want to be absent, but I have to be in the world. I just hope that one day Atlas won’t resent that.

It was a nice little visit before we made our way up the 5 to Sacramento. We didn’t do a thing execpt watch the baby walk every inch of the living room. That was enough for me. Driving was nice. While driving I experienced very little traffic. It was smooth and I am left wondering. Driving, moving from place to place, both the U.S. and Vietnam have been able to do it, but who is more efficient? What is cleaner? Could I actually drive in Saigon? We made good time to Sacramento. California was definitely showing out this weekend.

In Sacramento, I met with my parents at a friend of the family’s house. Mr. T and my father have been friends since their teens. There we celebrated my birthday with a proper Christmas dinner of turkey, dressing, greens, sweet potatoes, homemade dinner rolls and green beans. Just the kind of homemade food to feed the soul. A reminder of what you left behind. A reminder of the things that don’t change, good food and family. Little nephew came and we walked and walked around the backyard with him as he babbled on.

I had a chance to do a little bit of shopping at Costco. Secretly, I marveled at the diversity that exists in Sacramento. I miss seeing different faces. I miss hearing more than one language. The extra suitcase was beginning to fill up and I looked forward to the challenge of watching the weight slowly creep up to the weight allowance. I came with a bag packed in an empty suitcase. I left with two checked bags bulging toward the limit, still missing some needed items.

After shopping I rested for a bit, but I also felt I needed to do a bit more walking. I was doing big breakfasts while visiting and I needed to get some steps in. I napped for a bit and decided to walk in the early evening. Now the weather hasn’t been that warm. Weather in the 20s is chilly to me. (that’s 20 degree celsius) But the evenings have been nice. The first night I went walking around the area close to an elementay school and all residential area. After about 10 minutes of walking I started to feel a bit timid, worried. It wasn’t just two weeks prior to my visit that a young man was gunned down in his own backyard in the Sacramento area.

I was a new face in the neighborhood. They had never seen me before. I’m a black man walking around in a residential area. I’m also painfully aware of how the police in this area and throughout our country treat people of color. I began to get a little scared of the situation. At one moment I felt like there should have been a place for me to register myself and have neighborhood watch aware of my presence. You know, call down the phone tree, or alert the group chat that I was there and I was an okay Black.

The next evening I walked along a bigger road that was away from the residential area. It was more like a business park area. Low rise buildings with dark windows surrounded by parking lots lined the busy road. I felt a little more free to stretch my legs. I just kept walking until my legs told me they were tired. I guess that took me farther than I thought because I didn’t get back to the house until the start of sunset and that of course made the parentals concerned.

Even though everything is bringing the good feels, I am subtly reminded why I don’t live in this country. The underlying fear that just doesn’t go away while I walk down the street. It’s the real fear for my safety in any given situation. I am also extremely frustrated with this country’s cognitive dissonance.

My drive to return my car rental also went smoothly. The roads have treated me well on this visit. The last bit of freedom on four wheels was a nice thing. I appreciated the radio stations that now play music from my era. Thye’re not quite classics, but good grooves that should be continually played on the radio. Those songs were made for radio play, you know what I mean.

Growing up in California, the car has been an important part of my life. Driving closed the distances of this long state. The car took me home to San Bernardino County, through the central coast to San Francisco. I’ve covered those miles many times. A lot of things about the coast are still the same, enough to keep you clinging to those old memories where your youth cannot die, memories of blue skies, ocean views, Californian accents and lexicon, and the food that is light and rich at the same time.

Driving a motorbike in Vietnam…

As a friend described it. It’s like playing Mario Kart but you only have one life.

No!!! Stop! Are you going left or right?! Where TF did you come from? Dammit!!! Go, go, goooooo. Fucking go! STOP! Oh gawd, I almost died, again. Good grief! What the fuck man!!! Why?! Are you serious?! Fucking hang up the call! You drive like that with your kid with you?! Yo, I was next in line. 

They come at you from every angle. They drive against the flow of traffic. They make a left turns in front of your right and vice versa. They make turns from the opposite lane. They park in the turn lane. They drive for a long while at a slow speed with a blinker on, you follow not knowing when the damn turn is going to happen. They stop in the middle of turns for no apparent reason. At night they will drive without their lights.

 

It’s the price you have to pay for independence. I don’t know how my life would get to this point without having a motorbike. Now that I have driven, I could do it in HCMC, but I’d rather not really.. As I gain better control, I consider which bike I will actually buy. It’s a toss up between three, but really two. I rent from a guy in HCMC. I currently drive a Yamaha Nouvo. I am considering NVX of the same brand. Maybe a Honda Airblade. Price and size are the deciding issues.

Driving in Vietnam can be invigorating and freeing. I can just go when I want to go. Uber no longer exists in the country. They have a ride company called Grab or you can take a taxi. Eventually it all adds up. I’m not willing to spend my paycheck to not be able to explore and move around on my own. My next goal is to get a Vietnamese license because if you get in an accident without it, no insurance will cover you. It doesn’t matter  if you have an international license.

I like riding a bike. I don’t even mind riding in the rain except when I have dress shoes on. When it begins to rain everyone on a bike pulls to the side of the road and take out their ponchos to keep on moving down the road. It’s best to have ice running through your vein because even the children are chill on the back or front of bikes. It’s their everyday. They know no different.

 

 

Getting Around

I’ve taken, planes, trains, motorbikes and buses. It’s easy to get around here in Vietnam, but’s not easy to get around Vietnam. I remember my first time in Da Nang in 2011. I successfully haggled a price from the airport to my hotel in a non-metered taxi. I hadn’t changed any money at the time and when I think about it, I probably still paid too much. My first time in Hanoi I needed to go back and forth to the U.S. Embassy a few times. I was persistent to haggle price before each ride, even if the car was metered. This was useful because it is very common for the drivers to take you for a ride. At least with this ride I knew when they took a wrong turn. Nowadays, in Ho Chi Minh, the taxi drivers will claim they don’t have smaller bills to give you change even though it is the middle of the day and you know they’ve been driving and have cash on hand. Carry smaller bills, or better yet, take UBER.

Everything is relatively cheap. With UBER, which I despised in the States, everything is basically 4 times cheaper. There is an UBER bike option to which is dirt cheap. Buses are about a dollar. Bus rides to a different province are cheaper than what a BART commuter has to pay from East Bay to the City. A soft sleeper car on the train is cheaper than a bus ride to San Jose from SF on Greyhound. You can fly first class within Vietnam for the same price as flying coach from SF to LA. The only excuse for not traveling with in Vietnam is time.

Touring the country by motorbike is the best way to see the country. I will cherish those trips in my heart forever. My ass will also never forget those trips. You can lift the shield of your helmet and let the country air hit your face. The air moving around aids the evaporation of sweat rolling down your back. You’re surrounded by the country’s beauty.

Touring by train can be very relaxing. It’s important to reserve a soft sleeper. Just be aware you may have to share the car with others, but don’t worry. Watching the country slide by from your air-conditioned car with vendors coming by your door selling snacks is an experience not to miss. IMG_1934

Let’s focus more on the bus travel. Do you like rocking motions? Do you have nerves of steel? Then take a bus. They run constantly to each province, well, except Binh Duong. It costs about $6USD to ride from the mountains to the beach. The most I paid was $18USD from Da Nang to Vietienne, Laos. They are a fucking scary ride and at times can be very uncomfortable.

There are two kinds of buses. There are seated ones and sleepers. In 2011 I took sleeper buses. Most of my trips were lengthy and overnight. It just made sense at the time. Nowadays, it doesn’t matter if it is a three hour ride, you’ll ride a sleeper. Sleepers have individual berths with seats that recline. The berths are tiny. If the Vietnamese rider happens to be unusually tall, you will often see legs hanging over the edge close to the person’s face in the berth below, but this doesn’t happen often. There is barely any room to stash your shoes as you are required to remove them when getting on the bus. I mean it’s a tight fit for most. I learned that the last seats at the back of the bus are bearable.

After my 5 days on a motorcycle, I couldn’t imagine taking a motorbike out of the mountains to the beach. I didn’t think I would mind the capsule to sleep my way to the beach. My hotel ordered my bus ticket and a shuttle picked me up to go to the bus station.

Note #1: Stay vigilant. Even though announcements are done in English at times the p.a. system is crap and you won’t hear shit. Always talk to the information person there. Again, stay vigilant. The info person will assure you that they will tell you when and where your bus is, but they easily forget you, even if you are the only black traveler wearing an orange shirt there. Stay close to them.

I was the last one on the bus and observed how people were diligently looking for their numbered berth. I remembered that the back was where I wanted to be, but somehow convinced myself that I should follow the rules and squeezed into one of the smallest berths that was directly behind the driver. This has to be the most terrifying seat on the bus, also, you watch the worst driving decisions being made. Like passing a truck on a blind mountain curve. I also had to listen to someone’s motion sickness for 1.5 hours.

Note #2: Fuck seat assignments. Go straight to the back of the bus, especially if the bus isn’t full. If you are American or just larger than the average Vietnamese, insist that you sit in the back anyway. It’s quieter and you can remain oblivious to the dangers of the road.

There was a lunch stop that happened. That’s when I decided to move to the rear of the bus. I mostly couldn’t stand listening to a girl constantly sick up in a plastic bag anymore. I was already scratched up on my legs from rubbing the plastic trying to rearrange myself into a more comfortable position.

The motion of the bus was like a ship on a stormy sea. We rocked and tipped. I remember a trip I took in 2011 where I woke up in the morning at the bus stopped as drivers from a few other buses surveyed a bus that had turned completely on its side in a pond. The way the buses move on the highway is more than reckless. The stormy sea did put me to sleep. I figure it’s probably better to crash as a ragdoll.

After lunch, we quickly came to another stop. This place looked like we were still in the mountains. Were we in Nha Trang or even near it? Drivers never explain shit. They get you on the bus and tell you to get off, no explanation. I was foggy from my short nap. Everyone was getting off the bus. I said, Nha Trang, and the driver just grunted and waved me off the bus. My backpack was the last thing in the compartment hold, but they rushed me towards a mini-van. Next thing I know they closed the compartment and I told them I needed my luggage. The kid opened the compartment then spat on the ground next to my bag. What the fuck man? I was so out of it from sleep, but he didn’t need to be an asshole.

There were two mini-vans that could hold about 15 each and they decided to put 22 people into one. I and another girl had to stand and some people sat in other’s laps. Every single one of my pores were activated. Within a minute I was drenched in sweat. The air-con wasn’t strong and the driver refused to let anyone open the window. The driver drove like a bat out of hell, leaning on the horn the whole way. Luckily, our first stop a group of 9 Korean guys got out at their hotel.

I finally got a seat and could see the beautiful beach and beach park along the way. The opposite side of the street as lined with high rise hotels and new construction. The turquoise water was so inviting. The view of the islands was stunning. As we rode along, I just waited for my frustration to dissolve in the salty sea air.

Finally, the driver asked the address of my hotel. I showed him the address on my phone, he nodded his head and put the pedal to the metal. He went around a curve and then stopped in front of a construction site. I looked up and it wasn’t my hotel. He got out of the van, pulled my backpack out and said I was there. I said no and then he motioned with his arm for me to walk down the road and make a turn. Fuck!

It was hot as fuck, I began to sweat even more and I was lost. I wasn’t sure how much data I had left on my phone. The whole time traveling I tried to use it sparingly. I pulled up navigation. Come to find out, the driver had pointed me in the exact opposite direction of my hotel. Luckily, it was extremely close. Hefting the backpack to my shoulders I had to get past motorbike drivers and others trying to give me a ride 100 yards to my hotel.

I made it to La Suisse. No matter what, I’m never taking another sleeper if I can help it. As I settled into my room I began to remember my bus ride to Laos and how it had left me at the border in the pouring rain.

The next bus ride I took was from HCMC to Can Tho. It was a seated bus. Again, I was told to wait somewhere but given no other directions. Remember note #1? Well, it seems that my bus was scheduled to leave minutes from my purchasing a ticket. Again, I was the last to get on the bus. I went straight to the back of the bus and sat removed from the rest of the group. No one said anything about that. But why did they put a bag all the way in the back next to me?

I did doze off a little bit, here and there. When we got to our last stop it was obvious where we were, a bus station with the name Can Tho. Someone was there to assist me getting a shuttle to my far-removed hotel. On the return trip to HCMC I should have gotten out at the rest stop. It included a rather large market. The ride to and from Can Tho was uneventful, just the way I like it. I hope to continue to travel the country in various ways. It’s too cheap to not take advantage. You just need the time.

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