Monday, September 26, 2016

Part 3: Vietnam

Social awkwardness and tiredness (it was late) are a doozy. Step out of the luggage area in Ho Chi Minh City's airport and right into the street. No lobby, no waiting area, just a mass of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, fighting for taxis and buses and a ride to wherever they're going. We stupidly got in an unmarked taxi that made us switch to a marked taxi in a dark alley that then took us to not quite the right spot.

Vietnam is chaotic. 90% of the traffic on the road is made up of motorbikes. While cars may have to follow the rules of a one way road, the bikes don't, so even on narrow one lane streets they come flying down in both directions. Sometimes, they even hop up on the sidewalk, barreling down as if the sidewalks are merely a second road. Traffic lights are few and far between, and are followed precisely never. Crosswalks serve no purpose. Roundabouts become a sea of cutting across people and honking horns. The horns. Constant.

Vietnam was a country that tried to rip us off a lot. Scammers on sidewalks tried to upsell us by 1000-5000%. A woman began talking to me as I sat on the curb to try to distract me while a man would come by and try to steal stuff out of my pockets. Men on corners tried to sell marijuana, hurriedly saying the word, some of them dressed in official security or police garb. It is an intense experience. Between the constant noise, the pervasive smell of auto fumes, the onslaught of people targeting the 'rich tourist', it is not a place to visit for the faint of heart.

It is a country caught in between two worlds. You are just as likely to find a club or bar pumping nationalist tunes as you are America's latest hits. Chains have begun their steady encroach onto every block and corner, but markets are still the king of the arena. The main downtown area has fully embraced the modern capitalist adage of "the more tall buildings that light up, the better." The view can be stunning.

But I made friends there, some who I still stay in touch, who want me to come back, so that they can show me more of their country. After a few minutes on a bike, you learn to let go of the trepidation and just enjoy the wind on your face and seeing the city from outside an enclosed vehicle. And it's easy to enjoy many of the other little things. Vietnamese coffee. Reasonable portion sizes. Cheap as hell everything. Maybe I'll be back, maybe I won't. the country will continue to change. It is on a trajectory that can not be stopped. That trajectory is largely good, as it means less poverty, less crime, healthier citizens. But it also will eventually wear down the local customs, end the markets, the bikes, the little idiosyncrasies that made Vietnam, Vietnam.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Part 2: Malaysia

Malaysia is grittier, for a lack of better word. It does not disguise its flaws off the beaten path like Hong Kong does. There are homeless outside of train stops, outside of hotels and hostels, graffiti lines the stores and shops and restaurants, sidewalks are crumbling and entire grates can be missing, inviting your foot to fall in. Every now and then the smell of trash from a back alley wafts in, get too close to the river and the stench of rotting fish also encroaches upon your senses.

But there is a sheen to the immediate downtown, a modernity trying to obfuscate the social and economic problems the country is still grasping with, epitomized by the Petronas Twin Towers, all glossy and futurist and sleek, several holograms project into the air as you tour the building, telling you about the history of the two towers.

And yet there's a comradery and fellowship to it all. Bars spill on to sidewalks, fans staying up late to watch their beloved Premier League teams duke it out, then finding their way to Mamak stalls at 1, 2, 3 in the morning, enjoying the bread and curry and such they are famous for. Malaysia is a melting pot, more so than many SE Asian countries, a Muslim majority sharing space with a significant Chinese population, Indian one, and a host of aboriginal people. Mosques and temples and churches dot the city, every kind of cuisine imaginable finds its way into malls, the big  three of the country combining with western standbys and coffee and tea aplomb.

The streets of the city start to echo some of the chaos of surrounding countries, but there is still a general tendency to mostly obey the lights and signs, just make sure you know how to aggressively pass and cut across lanes.

Unlike Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur is far from walkable, highways intersect important routes, impossible to cross, sidewalk quality ranges from pristine to downright poor. Taxis are cheap and plentiful but just like HK and later Vietnam, my white skin appears to be a big sign that reads "please rip me off."

Perhaps most absorbing, surprisingly, are some of the markets, once again reflecting the diversity of the country, goods from a host of world religions, cultures, cuisines all intersect across a busy square, cheap to my western sensibility but not at all lacking in quality, things from Malaysia, Thailand, China, Japan, the UK, and on and on.

Malaysia is a sort of middle ground in the trip, as it were. not quite as rich and modern as Hong Kong, but not as chaotic and unwieldy as Vietnam. Kuala Lumpur was perhaps my favourite city on the trip, a city that it feels that to eat around it would take years - to uncover its nooks and crannies as well - an overlooked city, not said in the same breath as Bangkok or Singapore or Bali, but one who we found filling up our schedule with delights and discoveries with ease.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Part 1: Hong Kong

The man I am sitting next to on the plane to Hong Kong has a Chinese Passport and a US Passport, and he starts giving us all kinds of insider info on Hong Kong. Before we know it, we know how to get around Hong Kong and how to pay for it.

The subway system in Hong Kong - or MTR, as it is locally referred to - puts every single other system, even the Underground, to shame. It is completely and utterly idiot proof, full of maps and guides and light up signs and directions and every single stop, no matter where, featuring a slew of convenience stores, restaurants, bakeries, restrooms, Wi-Fi hotspots, ATMs, everything anyone could ever need. Not once did we go the wrong direction, or miss a stop, or get confused, unlike, say, in New York City. The trains were on schedule, fast, and we almost never had to wait more than 2 minutes for one. And a ton of them exited right out into shopping malls.

Speaking of shopping malls, I would not be surprised if Hong Kong had the highest amount of shopping malls per person of anywhere on earth. Step off the MTR? Shopping mall. Turn a corner? Shopping mall. Try to leave a shopping mall? Guess what, you just walked into another. They are everywhere, and seemingly all of them busy.

The MTR is strict. No eating or drinking, not even water. You can tell the cleanliness is a bit of a source of pride. There is no begging because it is illegal and strictly enforced. Of course, that doesn't rid the city of homelessness, and with a keen eye you can see the cardboard shacks and shipping containers that house the less fortunate in a city whose housing prices and rent prices are skyrocketing out of control.

Perhaps most strikingly, Hong Kong is an eminently walkable city, and people are out late walking, playing, shopping at markets, and with nobody ever far from an MTR stop, the time commitment required to explore the city is much smaller than it could be.

Yet beneath the relative orderliness of the city lies anger. Lamp posts are covered with stickers exclaiming that "Hong Kong is not China." Nobody in the city would ever dare identify themselves as Chinese. The constant tension of being the same nation but having a different government is there, and Hong Kong, even with all its wealth and development, is a small fish in a big pond compared to the overwhelming might of the mainland.

The city itself, the skyline, is everywhere. It feels claustrophobic at times, buildings seemingly stacked one after another, many of them narrowest at the base. It is even more crowded vertically than New York City, almost no part of Hong Kong is without towering structures standing high above you. It feels like they could all come tumbling down with just the smallest tremor, all the laundry strung out on wires floating down to fall on top of the rubble. But they haven't.

And like many big cities, Hong Kong loves - loves - car horns. Constant honking, even though the traffic was relatively orderly (certainly compared to later stops). One wonders how bad it would be without such a robust MTR system.

As for sightseeing, there's a lot, although given the relatively small area, Hong Kong isn't exactly a country you could spend a year in doing nothing but checking it out. Still, some of the temples are massive in scope and a sight to behold, many offering the only respite available in the city away from the noise. Perhaps most striking is Victoria Peak, a large rise on the south edge of the city that looks out over the urban sprawl at night. Hong Kong's nighttime light pollution is loud and garish and beautiful, and from atop the hill you can see it all spread out in front of you like a glorious artificial wildfire.

In terms of food, you probably owe it to yourself to at least find a nice dim sum place. You absolutely can't go wrong with BBQ pork dim sum, the sweet, soft steamed bun stuffed with smoky and sweet BBQ pork. It's so simple and yet so good, better than any cheap BBQ pulled pork you might buy in a store in America. Better than any hamburger bun. Washing it down with a nice hot green tea just makes it all the more enjoyable.

At its most fundamental level, Hong Kong stood out to me in the following ways; modern, tall, busy, convenient. It is a city seemingly designed to allow anyone and everyone to traverse it, to never have anyone be without a modern amenity for more than a few steps, and to simply overwhelm you with the sheer height and seemingly never-ending sprawl of sky-reaching buildings.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Guilt of Attention

It goes without saying that in some parts of the world, particularly the developing world, being a white person still brings with it a fair share of increased attention and curiosity. So it was in Vietnam that people, in general, were way more willing to talk to me (sometimes to rip me off, but I digress) and meet up with me then, say, in America. While this is all born out of a sort of romanticized notion of white people and westerners (a bad thing), I can't deny that the increased willingness of people to hang out with me, go on a date with me, want to get to know me, etc., is incredibly appealing, compared to being a boring, ugly, nobody-cares schmuck back home.

Thursday, September 1, 2016


Generally speaking, humans - or at least, a large segment of humans - aim to be able to enjoy a comfortable living, furnished by way of income, shelter, and relationship stability, among other things. It is perhaps, then, the cruelest twist of fate that comfort - insomuch as routine becomes it - paradoxically becomes one of the greatest barriers to continual development and accrual of things that may then provide additional comfort. Simply put:

1. We seek comfort
2. Routine becomes comfort
3. Comfort destroys comfort

Alas, such reality is one of the greatest sources of existential dissatisfaction among the population at large.