Rowing Through The Muck

I’m sitting on the second-story balcony of a craft brewery in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, drinking a Thai Iced Tea IPA and listening to Stevie Nicks blaring from the speakers. It’s grey and chilly, raining intermittently. The forecast is calling for cloudy weather for five of the six days that we’ll be in Vietnam, a delightful change from the brutal heat of Cambodia.

We arrived late at night at our bargain AirBnB on a narrow and back alley. I purposefully booked this homestay as the hosts help arrange travel plans and we had yet to book our trip to see the karsts in Halong Bay or the less touristy Cat Ba Island – a short journey outside of Hanoi. To our disappointment, waking up the next morning after a night of constant rain, we realized that the bad weather was intending to stick around and upon further research, we learned that there is a good chance of the boat tours cancelling in inclement weather. We debated simply booking the trip and taking our chances. But, having read a number of online horror stories from stranded travelers forced by circumstance into staying at bad hotels upon cancellation we were a bit concerned with the uncertainty of traveling 4 hours to potentially be left in the rain. Doing some quick math we realized that we had exceeded our budget in Cambodia and probably should make up some money before our diving liveaboard over New Years in Thailand. Finally, I read that touring the bay in cloudy weather can be mystical (get it?), but that the cold often forces travelers to remain on the boat, forgoing the kayaking and other water activities that are the main attractions for a junkboat tour.

So after a breakfast of homemade vegetable pho, we made an executive decision to spend our time in Vietnam enjoying the city of Hanoi, saving the trip to the bay and the surrounding countryside for another visit.

I had booked a hotel online the night previous and we moved the two blocks from our AirBnB to the Meracus hotel around mid-morning. I had splurged for the hotel, using a $50USD credit from our rewards, bringing the total cost to $20USD. The reason for the splurge? Because long-term travel requires constant periods of downtime. Unlike vacation, where you have a limited amount of time to see and do everything in a particular location, there’s no possible way that we could spend every second out sightseeing and purposefully finding time to relax is very necessary. Instead of rushing from site to site, we try to travel slow. Really getting the feel of a place by wandering into areas that don’t boast tourist sites and trying to be more spontaneous with where we eat. We’ve both had some bouts of illness due to food so we’re trying to be careful without missing the joys of the local cuisine. And while we’ve had a great time at home stays, occasionally it’s nice to have a hotel room that is technically all yours.

We had an unforgettable experience in Siem Reap, spending three action packed days being awed by the temples of Angkor Wat. However the impacts of being away from home for two months and the upcoming holiday season were starting to surface some major emotions and I needed a place of refuge.

This time of the year has been hard for me since my father passed away on December 14th, 1999, just before the Christmas holidays of my senior year in high school. Outside of the annual reminder of my father’s death, I’m one of those people who hates gift-giving – and going into Target any time after November 15th is my own personal definition of hell. Don’t get me wrong, I love that the holiday season allows for spending time with loved ones, primarily doing two of my favorite things – eating and drinking. But the forced consumerization and need to spend money on useless crap that will be discarded by the next year really rankles me. My mom and sister often lament that I’m the worst person to buy gifts for, as I would rather spend quality time together than have “things.”

That being said, I still enjoy this time of year as it provides countless reasons to get together with friends and family, revisiting annual traditions that deepen the important relationships in my life. Some of my favorite are Katie’s cookie baking party, Christmas Eve dinner of kraut bierok with the family, the Softchoice prime rib pot luck, and the Stradiot holiday appetizer party (arguably my favorite day of the year).

Christmas Tree made of traditional Vietnamese hats

From Thanksgiving through New Years, I’m extremely busy with both personal commitments and work, it being year end for most major corporations.

For most of my adult life, being busy has been my primary coping mechanism for dealing with the unresolved feelings from my father’s death. Whenever I feel sad or start to become too emotional, I’ve always been able to distract myself with work commitments or spending time with friends.

My second coping mechanism is to watch YouTube videos of soldiers returning home to their families after deployment. The joy you see upon their reunion and the knowledge that I’ll never have that with my own father creates a sense of gravity that allows for the tears to flow unchecked for several hours. Normally, I let Bodhi up on the bed and his consolation efforts make me cry harder, helping to quickly expend excess emotional energy.

This year however feels different. It’s not just that we’re unable to participate in the usual rituals, but being in this alien setting, away from everything that is comfortable, forces you to be introspective. Additionally, I’ve run out of excuses for avoiding the emotions, instead, forcing myself to spend time feeling and trying to understand them. The problem is, I’ve never really known how to sift through the different feelings and resolve them.

I feel like these are things that should be taught in school, right along with several other neglected life skills; how to do your taxes, drive a manual transmission, the importance of compounding interest, and sewing a button. But there is no handbook and often, you have to learn these lessons for yourself.

So we’ve been spending our days in Hanoi enjoying the vibrant city. Navigating traffic on narrow streets, to find small coffee shops, steaming bowls of pho and bun bo nam bo (a delicious beef noodle soup/salad), and day drinking (or as Dean calls it, living the dream). This city has so many great hidden wonders.

On our way to see Tran Quoc, a large Buddhist pagoda on the West lake, we stumbled into the Dong Xuan, a three story open mall packed with stalls selling any kind of good that you can imagine. On the main floor, we saw mostly purses, hair accessories, shoes, stuffed animals, and souvenirs for tourists. The second level was primarily fabric stalls, selling bolts of silk, satin, suit and shirt fabric. By the time we’d finished meandering the second floor, we were overwhelmed by the crowds and didn’t explore the third floor which mostly offered clothes. Apparently, if it’s available in Vietnam, you can find it here!

On weekends, traffic is closed on the main thoroughfare around the lake and both tourists and locals throng the streets to walk and shop. Big groups of teenagers sat in the streets socializing and families rented motorized Tonka trucks to drive their small children along the wide road. We held hands while strolling, the first time we’ve been able to do so for longer than a few steps.

The food scene is widely diverse, we’ve had fantastic Vietnamese, Italian, sushi, craft beer, and believe it or not, Nashville hot chicken. We leave our hotel each morning with a general direction in mind to see a different tourists site, meandering through neighborhoods and getting a view into daily life. We’ve dipped into several sidewalk cafes, ducked through two Christmas markets, dove into a number of local brews, dodged the motorbikes parked on every available sidewalk, and gawked at the display cases of roasted ducks along every block.

A delicious bowl of Bun Bo Nam Bo

Each day we find a new coffee shop, where I’ve been spending hours writing. Reliving that year that my father was sick and capturing my feelings of both then and now. At some point, I intend to reread my journaling and craft it into something that is worth sharing.

Coconut coffee at The Note

On the 18th anniversary of dad’s death, I cried several times throughout the day. The pain is still very present but less raw than in previous years and it’s helped immensely that I have someone to support me through the tears. Dean spent the morning on a coffee shop balcony while I typed, we ate lunch and then returned to our hotel room, where the hotel staff, upon learning that we are on our “honeymoon,” decorated our room with candles, rose petals, balloons, and a cake saying “Happy Honeymoon.” That night, Dean held me while we drank a bottle of wine, watching Love Actually and anihiliating that cake (what did you think?).

As the weather brightened over the next several days, my mood also improved. And instead of writing about all the sad things I remember from my father’s illness, I’ve begun writing about the good times. I’ve also started to really think about how this time away is changing me.

I’m still having bouts of homesickness and am sad that we won’t be taking part in beloved rituals with our families over the holidays. But I’m also happy for the opportunity to be so far out of my comfort zone, exploring new emotions and developing different perspectives around how I deal with grief, loss, and life.

I have no idea what I’m doing but that’s ok. The most important part of this period is the process. The ability to change and grow has always been a struggle. I like stability and routine. But at this moment, it feels right to be afloat. And I’m pretty lucky to have someone so supportive to share my boat.