Oh Man How Things Can Change

Trip Start Sep 07, 2011
Trip End Dec 22, 2011

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Flag of Mexico  , Yucatan Peninsula,
Sunday, September 25, 2011

We are going to take a detour back to New York this afternoon since I didn't write about it last week.   See...you never know what you are going to get on here.  You logged on looking for pics of flamingos and descriptions of exotic refried beans and jalapenos, but instead get the Big Apple.

I've been thinking about how living in Hanoi has changed me in ways I haven't even noticed but evidently apparent to others.   On September 16th, my buddy, Joe, and I took Amtrak to NYC for the day to hang out, and this isn't the same New York I remember from just two years ago.   Obviously the city hasn't hasn't changed much, but walking around something seemed really off.   I get it now!  I  am looking at NY (and everywhere else I visit really) through the prism of now living in Vietnam.

First off Hanoi is noisy, crowded, dirty, smelly, densely built, polluted, and an overall neat feast for the senses I quite enjoy.   In comparison New York now seems quiet, sterile, uncrowded and just full of skyscrapers that don't even attempt to be on any people friendly scale.  Even two hours on Amtrak in what is called the "Quiet Car" proved to be a benign experience not even worthy of more than a short sentence here.  No loud conversations, no cellphones, no nothing is allowed in that car.  To be sure "Quiet Car"is not even a concept decipherable to the average Vietnamese as an intercity bus or train in Vietnam is an exercise in patience with loud music, constant cellphone chatter, and conversations beyond 150 decibels.  I guess shouting at 149 decibels and below doesn't effectively deliver the message to a person sitting almost six inches away.

The chaos that reigns in Vietnam fuels a different something something we can't even predict when we wake up each day.   The same walk down the same sidewalk in the same neighborhood may as well be a different journey from hour to hour in Hanoi.  You know the old expression.  The one where just when you think you've seen it all... 

I get the sense New York is the same people, same yellow taxis, same restaurants and same sounds filling its streetscape day in and day out.   In the space of an hour in Hanoi, a new street vendor will have set up shop and then be gone as quickly as he came.   Nonstop honking of motorbike horns never ceases until late at night and even then some sort of commotion seems to always fill the streets.  Even the Hanoian sidewalks are full of parked motorbikes, blankets full of junk for sale, and potholes the size of a car.  I must use the term "sidewalk" loosely when describing that strip of broken out tile or concrete acting as a buffer between the street and open air businesses that spill out into it.  How does one determine if the sidewalk is an extension of a business or part of the street?   Where is the dividing line in Hanoi?  A novel feat it was for me to actually utilize a sidewalk in Manhattan for its intended purpose and even better walk in a straight line on it.

The street is where it happens in Vietnam unlike in the US.  Indeed, the locals pull up a stool, pop open a beer, and gawk, laugh, and point at their fellow Hanoians maneuvering through the chaos.   I can sit on a Manhattan park bench and at best watch some nannies dragging around their charges, businessmen obliviously walking by on their cellphones, and gawking obese tourists pointing their cameras skyward.  And I am fully convinced that unlike Hanoi pointing and laughing at the wrong person in Manhattan is probably a good way to end up six feet under.  Hanoi affords us loud motorbikes dangerously cutting each other off, slaughtered pigs strapped to the back of bikes going to the market, mounds of this raw meat making its slow decay in the heat on top of dirty tarps, and ladies pushing their versions of mobile WalMart carts full of feather dusters, bras, flipflops and candy, sometimes all on the same cart.  I guess the street vendors on Canal Street peddling their fake handbags sort of count.  This may be the closest NYC even remotely comes to as we say in Vietnam...Same same but different.

I had to quietly laugh when I saw the "street food" offerings in New York.    Plates of gyros, chicken and rice and more were pushed out of clean vans into the hands of well dressed office workers. Even the menus and prices looked the same from block to block and I am thinking these must be part of a chain.   You want some real street food worthy of the Travel Channel? Head to Hanoi and feast on baby birds barbecued in beer cans, roast dog laid out in its charred glory, a woman squatting in a mud puddle over a charcoal grill making pork patties with her dirty hands, or a woman cutting pineapple with a rusty knife. Yes, that is street food, not some falafel crap served by a guy whose gloves keep his funk from seasoning the food.

Don't get the impression I am over New York.  I still love it.  What now just seems mundane doesn't hold the same magic anymore after living in Hanoi.  And you New Yorkers should know that you really do live in a homogenized vacuum, self proclaimed greatest city on earth or not!   Maybe your surroundings are bigger and taller, but Dunkin Donuts tastes the same at Concourse A at the Atlanta Airport, TJ Maxx shops the same as in Orlando, FL, the people look the same as in Denver, Colorado, and even the language is the same as in Honolulu, HI 4,968 miles away.   I dare you to find this blandness strewn across Vietnam.

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