Monday, January 18, 2010

Symphony of Chaos

Borders are strange things, and never before has an imaginary line made its intangible divisiveness more clear than between the two worlds of Laos and Vietnam. I was in the middle of the ultimate daydream, a dream within itself, when I was rudely woken by a blaring screech, something so much more irritating and aggressive than the combined efforts the letters "h-o-n-k" can elicit. Not only was it accompanied by a brother honk, but a sister too, and a cousin, a third cousin (his dog and cat as well), the enteire family tree bearing down upon me swiftly and abrasively, with the intent of tearing out the mellowed roots of my mood, and leaving me for dead, exposed from the comfort of my soil. The culprit behind my wakeup call apparently wanted me dead too, as the moped zipped past, fractionally missing my person. Zoom out: this particular succession of beeps from my gardener was just one in the sea of a million, as mopeds crisscrossed in front of me in the most spectacular display of chaos, grace, noise, and some odd beauty that I've ever witnessed. The only way to cross the street is to literally shut your eyes and deliberately strut into the middle of the madness. Either someone wayyy up top is on your side, or these people are very, very good. I nominate a crazy combination of the two. Good Morning Vietnam! Love you to, Hanoi. Now let me go back to sleep.

No, as weird as it sounds, I really dig this place. Bangkok was crazy, sure, but there's something so deeply intense about Vietnam that I just cant quite dig up. There's grit here, it's raw, not in a dirty way, but it's in the eyes of the people, in the omnipresent crew cut of mist that the city's streets touts, and yes, definetaly in the traffic. I'm getting that buzz again, the city thing, creeping up on me and jumping me by surprise, wrapping me in its neverending cocoon of energy.

As a Christmas present to myself, I splurged on a cruise of Halong Bay, which entailed three days of stunning beauty, a well-needed dose of interaction with people of my generation, and a beautifully timed coal in my stocking in the form of diarrhea. No worries though, as much of my time was spent feeling like an extra on the Asian version of Pirates of the Carribbean, as our ship tip-toed through eery fog, past stark karst formations jutting from the water.

Saw Avatar in 3-D. The crowd reactions were as good as the movie, as chorused 'oooohhs' and 'aaahhhss' rose behind my front row seat at every mind-blowing visual.

Back to the school of haggling I trudge, where I've had to re-learn previous lessons from Thailand. From the front row. From a very anal substitute. I didn't have to barter in Laos because not a soul was out to to rip you off, but in congruent form with previous observations, Nam is yet again the antithesis of Laos. Previously, people just wanted my time and attention, now, they just want my money. And man, they WANT it. Sometimes starting at ten times the accepted value, you have to barter down everything - every transaction is a battle, and even though the thin front line of my money belt has taken serious casualties due to the unintelligent tactics of a rusty commander, my troops are determined to win the war, as a few recent prisoners of conflict can attest. I guess it's not too smart to use war analogies here...which is another thing: I've been working real hard on my Canadian accent, as I've experienced the overpriced barbs of animosity pointed sharply at my nationality (aside from a few spiteful experiences, I've had only positive experiences with the locals, although I do have to note that the general frame of countenance is that of a sour, puckered demeanor that only a mouthful of War Heads could produce). I even learned some of the Canadian national anthem, and everything was fine and dandy, until I had an ugly interaction with history, discovering that the French occupied Vietnam for a bit, leading to a decent amount of french speaking Vietnamese...and also leading to awkward conversations with the only Canadian they've ever met who doesn't relate in that tongue.

I've thoroughly enjoyed romps through the Old Quarter, which houses a dynamic blend of old school French architecture and new school industrial smoke from the pulsating furnace owned by the on-the-rise Vietnamese economy. Every moment holds something new, something bizarre, and quite frankly, I love it. The bleating horns are reminiscent of some spoiled group of trust-fund goats, which bodes ill for the slightest hangover - and herein lies the shrillest irony of all...15 cents. For what? A pint of the most refreshing Bia Hoi Hanoi you could dream of. It's here, on these little plastic seats, that were definetaly manufactured with the smurfs in mind, where I have fallen asleep yet again, except this time, my head lols to the amped up throb of the heart of the city.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Peeps

One man I met put things into perspective in a way that only broken Enlgish can: "Thailand... Smileland." If that's the case (and it is), then Laos Cheezes harder than Chucky himself, and all of
Thailand to boot. Differentiating between the happiest people in the world is a daunting task which is currently staring me dead in the eye, western shoot-out style. I guess I'll just 'when in rome' it, crack a big one, and get down to business then eh.

No matter what type of spectacular landscapes produce, I've found that the people are what make a place special. In NZ, with backdrops that demand a serious pinch to validate reality, my best moments were those that found the beautiful people a prominent yarn at my memory loom, woven tightly into the surrounding environment. South East Asia has only solidified previously liquid convictions, as each crazy turn of events has found some amazing human being ushering me onward, my traffic guides, directing me toward the never-land of fun and rewarding experiences.

First with Thailand... Sure, there are those that take advantage at every opportunity to dupe you out of all your money (which I find truly ironic considering that 95% of the people are Buddhist, and I don't feel like ripping off another human being is going to go over so sweet in the Karmic realm), but the vast majority of people I've encountered are just beautiful. Thai people are very open, accepting, and definetely in your face. You'll see guys walking down the street, arms around one anothers shoulders, girls walking hand in hand, and you'll definetaly get a tuk-tuk driver or two who will give you suave yank of the arm, the subtle indentations of 'you my best friend, I make special deal for you' lingering on your skin even after the attempt to sell
his services to you. And when it comes to sexuality, the hinges from the doors of modesty get
blown straight off. From getting the stare down from many a tranny (which are a dime a
dozen), to creepy old dudes escorting young Thai girls about (talk about not having any game),
to the infamous ping-pong shows (urban dictionary it if you're not in the know). I find them
very playful, as every vendor you walk by is yakking smack talk to somebody across the street,
laughter rings in the air, filling in the few blank notes not already taken by honking horns.

Now subtract the rush, the noise, the intensity of Thailand, then roll it all up in an Opium pipe and get zooted beyond a sensible level of 'chill' - and you have Laos. Still very much a tribal country, the dialysis of tourist stimulation has yet to completely revert the simple, laid back lifestyle (I prematurely bestowed the crown of 'most laid back' on Thai people). While life is slower here (you'll hear people refer to 'Lao time' in regards to a generally impervious attitude towards the hands of a clock), it is definetaly hard, as many villages lack electricity and other modern conviences. The people age at a rate dictated more by Western, not 'Lao,' time, resulting in a reliance upon the boundless energy of youth, and thus the swarming population of children milling about. Kids are everywhere, bleating out friendly 'sab-ai-dee's (hello), and grinning shyly at the 'falang' (foreigner), as you pass. Marry young, have a LOT of kids young, and watch your body get old while you are still young, seems to be the timetable for life here. Despite the simple, basic life, these are THE happiest people that I've ever encountered, as the harsh life lead cannot dim the twinkle found in each eye.

Here are a few of my favorites, each picture spinning its own thread into the fabric of my