What To Do When in Asia

Although we can divide our trip thus far into roughly four parts (Europe, South Asia, South East Asia, and East Asia), we’ve spent the vast majority of our time in Asia. We’ve had the time of our lives and I think everyone should visit Asia (if not travel it extensively). It truly has something to offer everyone, so I’ve made the following guide and tribute to the great continent.


India: just show up and something exciting WILL happen


Maldives: go sailing and snorkeling on remote atolls


Nepal: go trekking


Thailand: explore the entire country


Laos: travel and live on the Mekong


Cambodia: yes its cliche, but you HAVE to explore Angkor


Malaysia: take in the diverse cultures and food


Brunei: meet characters at the Pusat Belia (not pictured)


Singapore: visit the Botanical Gardens


Indonesia: DIVE!!!


Vietnam: eat!


China: meet the friendliest people on earth


Korea: go to a baseball game


Japan: once again, EAT! (especially the seafood :) )

Chinese Customs

matt 120pxDespite Vietnamese people telling me that border closed at 4:30pm and their attempts to sell me onward bus tickets at an inflated price, we went straight to the border after we were done with the Bac Ha debacle. We went with Caitlin (from our Sapa trek) and met a French guy Philip while waiting at Vietnamese passport control. Once stamped out of Vietnam, we walked across a river bridge to China. Walking across, I was overjoyed to be out of Vietnam. It was by far my least favorite country and I doubt I will miss it one bit (well, maybe the food).

Out of Vietnam, but not in China yet. Chinese immigration was quite an experience. A border guard ushered us to a counter to fill out an arrival card and customs declaration. Pretty standard procedure, except that he took my passport and quizzed me on my name and birthday while I was writing. Answering both questions correctly and having filled the forms out to his satisfaction, he pointed me towards passport control.

The border guard there did the usual with my passport: flip through the pages, briefly scan the visas and stamps, scan it into the computer, type in my data, and do a visual comparison of me and passport photo. Then he stood up from behind his desk and asked me to follow him. We walked over to the side of the arrivals hall and I silently watched as he examined every page of my passport. Standing there, he scrutinized the front page, before reading every single visa and entry stamp, then he curiously looked at the extra pages I had inserted a few months ago. This took a few minutes and a lot of will on my part not to say anything, when he finally told me, “Wait here.” He went away with my passport and discussed it with who I can only assume was his supervisor. After a few minutes he returned with a sheet of paper and pen and asked me to sign my name as he watched. Still not satisfied, he kept looking at my passport. Then he asked if I had any other certificates. Certificates? I told him no, at which he frowned. Then I thought maybe he meant ID, so I pulled out my California Drivers License. He took it and asked if I had any others. The only other anything I had with my photo on it was my ATM card, so I produced that as well. I guess that did it, because he finally gave me an entry stamp and my passport back.

Even after that, I still wasn’t out of the woods yet. My next challenge was customs. Not that I was trying to smuggle anything into China, but I’ve heard a lot of stories about people getting their guidebooks confiscated at airports and border crossings. Apparently, the Chinese government hates China guidebooks because they do not include Taiwan and customs often takes them citing the fact that the maps depict Taiwan as a separate country. Having done our research, Joylani had cut our China guidebook up into sections and hidden the map deep in one of our bags.


our cut-up guidebook

We figured even if they found a section of the guidebook, perhaps Yunnan or Hong Kong, there would be no controversial map to justify confiscation. After my bags went through an x-ray machine, the customs officer asked me to open my big bag (dang, I thought he’d search my daypack). I unzipped it and toiletries and clothes were all that were visible. Then he asked, “Do you have any books?” I pulled out a journal and Bible, which he barely glanced at. But in pulling these out, he could also see a couple torn-out sections of my guidebook. He pulled them out and flipped through them. I thought the absence of a national map had saved me when he said, “You know, this book is forbidden in China.”


“This book is forbidden.” I asked why, confident that he’d have no reason since it wasn’t technically a book (just a section of a book) and there was no controversial map. But he pointed out that silhouette of China printed in the upper right-hand corner of a page omitted Taiwan. “Actually,” he added, “ Taiwan is part of China.”

“I know it is. This stupid book.”

“Yes, Taiwan is part of China. This book is forbidden and we confiscate it when we find it,” he said firmly, but looking almost sorry that he’d have to take it.

I seized upon this, “But tonight I’m trying to get to Kunming. This is my first time in China; how will I get to Kunming without my guidebook? I’ll tear out the pages with a silhouette if you want.”

He handed the sections back to me, saying, “I’ll let you keep it this time, but usually we take it. But Taiwan is part of China and tell your friends that this book is forbidden and not to bring it into China.” I said okay and thanked him profusely. When I had finished repacking my bag, he made a big smile and said, “Welcome to China.” Welcome to China, indeed, I didn’t feel to welcomed so far. He wasn’t too lenient a few minutes later though, as Caitlin had her guidebook discovered and taken away. Across the border, we walked to the nearby bus station and caught a departing sleeper bus headed to Kunming.


We’re in China! The border and road checkpoint on the way to Kunming were in my opinion, paranoid but polite. I was really looking forward to China and now I’m even more excited now that we’re here. Even Joylani’s happy to be here, despite being indifferent to the place as last as this afternoon. I still cannot decide if I’m happier to be out of Vietnam or in China.



joylani 130pxThe last couple of days have been full of the beautiful traditional dress of the local people such as the Black Hmong, Red Zao, and Flower Hmong. Many of the women in town are also selling handicrafts that are duplications of their own dress or use similar techniques (like purses or hippy pants with embroidered patches sewn on). Some of them are handmade, others by machine. I’ve been having fun doing a little perusing of the items for sale, in search of something interesting to take home. In Sapa there is a little section of the covered market that is dedicated to the handicrafts of the Black Hmong (my personal favorite of all the handicrafts). The room is filled with a couple dozen tables, piled high with indigo fabrics that have been made into all sorts of items: bedspreads, pants, jackets, purses. Each table has its own wrinkly sales lady (working on stitching something, but there is always a calculator nearby in case a potential customer comes). I walked around the dimly lit room looking for just the right patch to take home and frame. Some were too bright, others were too big.

Except for the Hmong women and me, the room was empty. They watched me with sideways glances to see what type of item I was interested. As I’d come up to a new table, each woman would pull out a pile of patches for me to peruse. Some called me to their tables with undecipherable clucking sounds. One woman led me by the arm behind her table, offered me a stool, and produced a back full of old patches. Her work was good, and I bought an indigo-colored patch from her, as well as a more colorful one from another woman. Although I seriously considered buying more, I decided to wait for the Bac Ha market, which was a mistake. I was disappointed by the Bac Ha market as I incorrectly figured there would be similar ladies selling hand stitched items, but most of the things for sale seemed to be mass produced, or else if it was handmade, not something I really liked. This is actually a repeated lesson I’ve learned throughout the trip. If you find something you like, especially if it is handmade, buy it on the spot. There is no guarantee you will be able to find it else where. And for some purchases, the memory of the process of buying it is just as fun as the item itself.




Our very last activity in Vietnam, en route to China, was to visit Bac Ha’s famous Sunday market. We’d heard rave reviews about it from one Malaysian traveler we’d met on our Ha Long bay cruise. It took us about three hours by van to get to Bac Ha from Sa Pa. We arrived just after 10 am, by which time the market was in full swing. Stalls were busy selling to the hundreds of people who had descended on the small town. The appeal of this market was that it is a local thing- villagers from all over the region rendezvous at Bac Ha every Sunday to buy, sell, and barter goods, food, and livestock. It was interesting to see all the animals for sale, the tools available, and other daily-use items for sale, but much of the market had turned tourist-oriented. Joylani mentioned to me that the handicrafts available were low quality, although most of it looked used to me. Despite the tourism, the market was incredibly dusty and dirty. Usually we skip the touristy restaurants in favor of local stalls, but not at Bac Ha. Animal feces, mud, and blood and guts from the butcher area discouraged our desire for authentic Bac Ha food. After three hours at the market (perhaps three hours too long), we boarded our van for the ride back to Lao Cai. The tour guide did have the vanload of us stop for a pointless 20 minute “trek” to a local village. Pointless because there was nobody in the village because they were all at the market, plus it was hot and unscenic too. Then we made a stop near the river separating Vietnam and China, so we could see China and the “Friendship Border.” Both stops were made against the protests of us van passengers and any attempts to get a reasonable answer or explanation fell of deaf ears. I’m beginning to get the feeling that Vietnam has a policy of employing its most dim-witted citizens as tour guides. Every guide we’ve had has been horrible- not just inept at guiding and providing information, but often acting in a manner that goes against the wishes of all the clients. Bac Ha, Ha Long Bay, the Cu Chi tunnels, every guide has been extremely obtuse; or perhaps they just act aloof to conceal their shadiness. Reading back over this, I don’t think I’ve detailed or supported my grievances very well, but I’m not going to dwell on or write about shady Vietnamese people. I’ll end by saying that today was pretty representative of our time in Vietnam as a whole: interesting, although short of expectations, but made unpleasant by the people.

Vietnam Market Analysis


Don’t put all your eggs in Vietnam’s basket

Although I’ve written a fair amount about my dislike for Vietnam’s strictly business attitude devoid of any friendliness, and its growing consumerism and obsession with money, the flip-side is that Vietnam has a rapidly growing economy. Perhaps the focus on making money and buying “stuff” is a reaction to decades of economic imprisonment. Whatever the reason, the growth was evident from the moment we stepped into Saigon. The building everywhere, the new ATMs, the preponderance of motorbikes. While this could describe many Asian locales, it’s the type of buildings going up, the fact that nearly all of the ATMs and motorbikes are new, and the absence of cars (the next step up from motorbike) that indicate Vietnam’s growth is rapid and new. In Indonesia, I picked up a copy of The Economist whose cover-story was a special report on “Vietnam: Asia’s Other Miracle. Indeed, it was just over twenty years ago that Vietnam was on the brink of economic collapse and famine. Vietnamese were synonymous with “boat people” for the whole the 1980s. It had only taken a decade for the Communist party to totally destroy the country with its policies. By the mid-80s, they saw the writing on the wall and began to liberalize. Since then, its been a slow, but gradual process, with private property becoming legal in 2000.

The abandonment of Communist economic policies for capitalist ones is the reason that today (scales aside) Vietnam looks more like China than Lao. In the past five years, two stock markets have been formed, in Saigon and Hanoi, repectively. Between the encouragement of somewhat free markets and the government’s concerted effort to help the poorest segments of the population (something other Asian nations should at least attempt), the middle class is growing rapidly and driving domestic consumption. Not only is foreign direct investment (FDI) flowing into the country at an accelerated pace, but Vietnam is also investing heavily in neighboring countries to meet the demand its creating. Writing about specific market opportunities in Vietnam is futile for several reasons. One, unless you’re part Vietnamese, foreigners cannot open investment accounts. Two, the only fund (besides hedge funds, PE, and institutions) that offers a Vietnam-focused fund is small UK-listed one (Americans can buy it OTC, using symbol VTOPF). Three, with so few offerings, it makes more sense to write about individual stocks, rather than sectors, something beyond the scope of this post (not to mention my expertise). All that being said, many analysts and market observers say that Vietnam is a ten-year buy. Its 8-9% GDP growth is projected to sustain itself at least another decade. Looking at Vietnams two largest and fastest growing firms (Vinamilk and Vinpearl, foodstuffs and tourism respectively), it is clear that this is not going to be a purely export-driven boom. Even more exciting is that Vietnam is in the very early growth stages. Very early. Imagine investing in China or India ten years ago. Imagine investing in any OECD country in the 50s. Vietnam is at the bottom of what many expect to a huge parabolic spike in economic growth.

But before you throw all your money in that UK-based Vietnam Fund or any of the other funds that are bound to open in the near future, you better know the risks of investing in Vietnam. Yes, Vietnam is growing extremely rapidly, but so is inflation. GDP growth is hovering around 8%, but the April inflation reading indicated 21% inflation (year over year). To give you a frame of reference, China’s GDP is growing at about 9% with a high 9% inflation, while India’s GDP is just below 9% with 7-8% inflation. Vietnam’s economy could very well overheat and derail, with inflation dually destroying Vietnamese wealth/savings/earnings and increasing businesses’ input costs to fatal levels. We just came from Indonesia, which was more developed in 1997 than Vietnam is today, but was stopped dead in its tracks and remains the same today. The Asian Financial Crisis wreaked havoc on Indonesia and Indonesians, who watch their rupiah go from 3,000 to the dollar to 10,000 to the dollar within a weeks span. Inflation or a similar financial crisis could do the same to Vietnam, especially since Vietnam’s government is inexperienced and ill-equipped to deal with the growing free market economy. Even if the government can bring inflation down without seriously hurting growth, there’s still the danger of market volatility. Market caps are small and trading thin, plus 25% of Viet securities are owned by foreigners. To witness the effects of foreign outflows, look at a 2008 YTD chart of Vietnam’s index. Down 50% ytd, making it the worst performing market in the world this year. I’ve outline a lot of big risks, so if you’re still interested, perhaps this correction provides a good buying opportunity. Even if you’re not interested, you may consider allocating a very small portion of your portfolio to Vietnam (which can be done via a plethora of Asian-focused funds out there), as even just a few dollars can grow to a sizable sum with good returns. At this moment in time, I feel that Vietnam offers both the biggest risks and returns in Asia.

Sapa Trek


164_6445-4.JPGThe landscape around Sa Pa is the most beautiful we’ve seen in Vietnam yet. Sa Pa town is perched on a mountainside and the vista from our hotel overlooks the river valley and is dwarfed by the opposing and imposing mountains. To take in more of Sa Pa’s scenery, we signed up to go on a guided day hike with a local tour agency. This morning we met our guide, Mai, a twenty-something year old Black Hmong girl. We also met the sole other trekker on the hike, Caitlin, from Canada. Although the hike started down the main road leading into town, we soon veered off it and began descending down into the valley. Most of the way we just walked down a dirt path that intersected the dozens of rice paddies. Its planting season now and men were out preparing the paddies, plowing and fixing irrigation canals. The path was slightly muddy from yesterday and last night’s rain, but it was manageable (if not a bit slippery). A little girl began walking with the four of us, as well, since she was headed to one of the villages that we’d pass through. Lots of little girls walk around Sapa, hawking handicrafts and other souvenir junk, this girl included. We continued down, down, down the terraced mountainside. Not much to write about- just descending with the occasional stop for a photo. Despite the monotony of the walk, it wasn’t bad. The scenery was spectacular, mainly the rice paddies that blanketed the valley and mountainsides for as far as we could see.




We took a rest break when we reached a rudimentary suspension bridge spanning the nameless river at the bottom of the valley. While we sat, the seven year old girl following us accidentally dropped her umbrella. Although I was pretty sure it landed in the river and sank or got swept away, she was determined to recover it. We watched on in amazement as she clambered down the rocks and jumped from stone to stone on the banks of the turbulent river looking for her umbrella. Her efforts were, however, futile as her umbrella was gone. When she climbed back up to the bridge, we set off again. We came all the way down one side of the valley and now began the tiring climb up the other. Hiking uphill was pretty tiring, but at least it was a river valley that gradually descended in altitude. So we did have some steep ups, but it was generally down. Eventually our path cut away from the river and we walked through paddied hills full of farmers. Men plowed, women planted. Walking, I realized that by days end I would probably have 12 millions rice paddy photos. But at least their irregular lines, colors, and reflections made them a dynamic subject.



After several hours of hiking, we reached Lao Chai, a Black Hmong village. It was a farming village and as the trail ended, we were reduced to walking on narrow walls of dirt/mud separating the paddies. Careful not to fall to either side, we slowly approached the village. We ate lunch in the village and noticed a ton of other trekkers. Apparently all the other groups had taken one trail, while our guide had taken us along a remote trail. I was really thankful that we didn’t run into any other people throughout the whole morning, not to mention groups of package tourists. After lunch, we only walked for about another hour or so, at which point the trail met a road. We piled into an SUV that shuttled us back to Sapa for the evening. Looking back on the day and the hike, it was a relatively easy hike, but very scenic. It was a good way to end our otherwise tumultuous time in Vietnam.

Animals in Vietnam

animals sapa

This guy did not look happy to be in here.

animals sapa (3)

joylani 130pxAfter more than five months on the road, Matt and I found ourselves walking down a dusty road in Cambodia when he had the epiphany, “I think there are more than one kind of chicken.” Maybe it was something he’d been thinking for a while and just hadn’t had the right moment to put it into words, but I found his belated awareness quite entertaining as by that time we’d seen all manner of strange looking feathers and fowl. Reading one tourist’s review of a bike trip through Vietnamese villages, I scoffed at the remark that went something like this, “It was real country, we saw chickens on the road.” Maybe this person had lived in New York her whole life, but if you want to see chickens on the road you don’t have to go all the way to Vietnam. “If you want to see chickens, go to Arcata,” I sarcastically thought, “chickens are not exotic.” To the tourist’s credit, though, there is something interesting about seeing animals in the developing world. They’re used and viewed differently than the way we would see them back home, say, in San Francisco. This chicken has a string tied around its feet. It reminded me of trying on sandals but having trouble because they’re attached by a cord or something.

animals sapa (4)

Water buffalo being used to move the plow. In other places we’ve visited they are used for food—milk (cheese, yogurt, making tea), meat, and skin.

animals sapa (2)

This fella couldn’t hold still long enough for me to take a clear picture, which is probably to the pup’s advantage considering the day after I took this shot I saw a little bit larger dog being taken of a coal pit after a thorough roasting.

animals sapa

Last Day in Hanoi!


164_6445-4.JPGYesterday was a low, but I’m feeling pretty thankful today. I woke up really early yesterday morning and went to the train station to buy tickets for the night train to Sa Pa. The clerk informed me that there was only one soft-sleeper berth left. A quick debate ensued in my head, before I told her I’d take two hard-sleepers. Joylani and I went out to breakfast, but spent the rest of the morning in the coolness of our AC’d hotel room. A couple reasons for that. One, its been over 35C/100F degrees the past few days in Hanoi, which is made even worse my unbearable humidity. Two, we had to check out at noon and our train wasn’t schedule to leave until 10pm. I hate the days that we have night transportation (especially when its hot, which has been most of our trip), because its often a wasted day of waiting and killing time.

At noon, we headed out for lunch, followed by some che. Then to a café. Then to an internet café. Then to more food. It was typical time-killing day. Plus, it was sweltering outside and only one of the aforementioned locations had AC. Sweating profusely in the Hanoi heat and humidity with the knowledge that we had nowhere to shower that night began to demoralize us. Plus, I had no idea what a hard-sleeper meant. It was below soft-sleeper and above hard-chair, but what did that mean. I assumed it was just berths of wood with open windows to provide cool air. I had buyers’ regret all day: should we have paid a travel agent a hefty commission to score us some soft-sleepers? Should we have stayed one more day in Hanoi and bought soft-sleepers for tomorrow night? Maybe a chair car would be more comfortable…We were all sticky with a day’s worth of sweat, probably smelly, and resigned to our night’s fate by the time we reached the train station.

We got to the station early and set our bags down while we waited for our train. We met a couple of Canadian girls who we commiserated about our situation with. It made me feel a bit a better though. They had bought their tickets later than us and could only get a pair of hard-chair tickets. Forty-five minutes before departure, we headed to the platform and boarded the train. To our surprise, it was AC’d. Alright! Not only that, the groups of six berths were in enclosed compartments. Then, when we got to our compartment, there were cushioned mats on each berth! Much better than the straw mat on hard wood or metal that I was imagining. I was thoroughly impressed and even more grateful. Not only was it not bad, it was comfortable, contrary to what our guidebook and a few other travelers had said. I drifted off to sleep to the comforting sound and feel the train in motion, trading the reality of hot Hanoi for the dreams of cooler Sa Pa.

I awoke to Joylani poking me in the back at 5:30am. “Matt, Matt! Was that it? Was that stop Lao Cai? Did we miss our stop? A bunch of people got off there.” she said. How should I know? You’re the one who just poked me and woke me up. Instead of voicing my grumpy early-morning thoughts, I just said, “I don’t think so” and tried to go back to sleep. Not that I didn’t care, but I was pretty sure that Lao Cai was the last stop on the line and we were moving again. At 6:30, we did arrive at Lao Cai and jumped in van headed for Sa Pa. There was Dutch group already in the van, all which seemed pretty perturbed with the driver since they had been waiting an hour already. I assumed their hotel had hired van to bring them, but the driver was keen on making a little extra. They assumed we were scheduled to be picked up too, rather than just jumping in a random van as we did. But they got really mad when a bunch of locals jumped in too. They made sarcastic remarks in English and Dutch the whole way up, although I tried to ignore them, contenting myself with a two-foot long baguette I’d bought and the spectacular scenery as we wound up the mountainous road. The van ride isn’t really worth mentioning, except for an extremely gross and funny moment. Vietnam, like most of Asia, has water buffaloes and cows wandering all over the place. Seeing and avoiding big round green piles of dung when walking or driving has become second-nature. So, as a passenger looking out the front window, I noticed the van swerve a bit to the right to avoid the gooey pile of poo, not to mention an oncoming van. But as the van passed by us, I felt a spray of…no…couldn’t be…It felt like being splashed by water, but when I wiped my cheek and looked down at my shirt, yes, the oncoming traffic had sprayed me with cow pie. A couple seconds later, the old Dutch guy next to me said, “Oh, shit,” to which his wife replied, “Yes, it is.” Both the Dutch guy and I, and our wives sitting behind us had been sprayed, not to mention the driver and the whole left side of the car. Tissues were handed out and hand-sanitizer passed around, although we spent the duration of the drive with shit-smeared shirts.

In Sapa, we checked out a couple hotels and settled on a room on the fifth floor of a towering hotel that has commanding views of the surrounding mountains and valley. First order of business was to shower (sweating all day in Hanoi, no shower as we slept on a train, plus, now I had splats of dung on me) and change clothes, although after I was out on the balcony trying to capture the grandeur and beauty of Sa Pa. After a quick nap, Joylani and I headed out to explore a bit. The first thing I noticed: it was cool here. The first time since…Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao…for the first time since we were in northern Lao in January have we been in a cool place. For some reason, that was just mind-boggling to me when I realized that, but perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising since we’re relatively close to northern Lao, here in northern Vietnam. The weather wasn’t the only similarity though. The second thing I noticed here in Sa Pa was the preponderance of traditionally-dressed hill-tribe people, just as we’d seen in northern Thailand and Lao. Mostly women of all ages, from young girls to old toothless ladies, they walk around town dressed in their magnificent traditional dress. Most of them walked the streets hawking their wares (mostly traditional handicrafts), although there were some traditionally-dressed men which I’ve almost never seen anywhere. I mean, in most places we’ve visited, its not uncommon for women to dress in traditional garb, but men almost 100 percent of the time dress western. Back to Sapa, I’ve read that there’s three main hill-tribes represented in town; the Black Hmong, Dao, and Giay. The third thing that really struck me while walking around this old French hillstation was the excellent views. From almost anywhere along the main road, you could catch a glimpse of the amazing valley. And its not too hard to wander behind a building or find an opening in the trees to take in a full view of the valley below and cloud-shrouded mountains. Needless to say, Sa Pa is a much needed change from the rest of Vietnam and our past week in Hanoi. The mountains are always therapeutic in a way: cool fresh air, slow paced, mellow people, and beautiful surroundings. Tomorrow, we’re doing a day trek out to some villages and our last day will be spent at the locally-famous Bac Ha Sunday market. For now though, I’m just thinking about a good night’s sleep- its been a looooong two days.

Traveling gives more than you bargain for

(After being on the road for a while, the functions of one’s stomach start to become a normal topic of conversation. So if you’d rather not read the following, don’t.)

joylani 130pxAfter the most disgusting eggy burps all afternoon, I self diagnosed giardia and started taking a course of flaygl which I luckily had recently purchased “just in case” one of us needed it before going home. “Just in case” came a lot sooner than I expected. I realized that any burps I had in Nepal and India probably weren’t from the hardboiled eggs I had been eating (and eventually stopped because the smell of eggs started to gross me out), but from the month or two (or three or four) that my stomach was infected with this nasty disease. Being sick is never fun, but being sick abroad especially stinks because you are in an unfamiliar place (no where is as comfy as home to be ill) and besides, you don’t even get paid time off from work (oh wait, I didn’t get that before I left home…silly non-profit).

A few days ago, as Matt may have mentioned, I got super sick on day two of our “Ha Long Bay from Hell Tour.” As I lay in bed that evening, my body aching and recovering from a day of puking (including once out the window of a bus and once on my way up the stairs to our hotel room…thankfully I had a plastic bag with me), my mind raced with thoughts of what could be wrong with me. Dengue? Malaria? Japanese B Encephalitis? I don’t even exactly know what the symptoms of those are, except that I’d been traveling in some crazy places and been bit much more than I would have liked. Was I dying? It sure felt like it. For the first time, I found myself wishing for SOS to come and Med-Evac me out to some nice hospital, like the Adventist one in Bangkok, where I could be hooked up to an IV of miracle fluids and nursed back to health on BBQ chicken and mangos with sticky rice.

Fortunately my malady on the boat trip was most likely just a case of food poisoning (or maybe that pack of strawberry oreos I ate the night before?…). But now something else seems to be wrong. I don’t know where all the gas comes from, but I imagine that there must be little green giardia oompaloompas (the orange ones are the good ones, they make candy) mixing this with that, causing an explosion, a green cloud perhaps, which causes my stomach to ache like no other. Travel isn’t all beaches and historic sites…

Half my hair left and one mullet later

joylani 130pxAt first I thought my new do was influenced by Carol Brady and Thai fashion, but after a couple of days’ reflection, I think it’s a little bit more Aerosmith, a little bit Linda from Wedding Singer, and a lot horrible. What happened was I thought it would be good to get a little trim before going home in a couple months. I’ve been working on growing my hair out, so I just asked for a little trim, to fix the layers (as in make them more uniform, not all shaggy), and thin out the bulk a bit. At least that is what I told the guy who spoke English. He translated my request to the guy who was to do the actual cutting. You’ve heard the phrase “lost in translation” right? My suspicions are it went something like this, “She said to thin it out and do something about the layers. As you know, we don’t believe in thinning scissors here, so just try to hack off as much of the bulk as possible with your regular scissors. Oh, and she wants to keep it the same length, so make sure you don’t cut too much off the bottom layer.”

As the kid began to cut away, I sat in horror hoping that what I couldn’t quite see happening behind my head would turn out ok. Inspections and comments from the salon staff increased my suspicion that something really bad had happened back there. “Stupid rookie,” I thought, “Why couldn’t the guy with a utility belt of scissors been the one to cut my hair? Who does this punk think he is anyways? Just because he has tattoos does not make him fit to cut my hair.” I calmed down a bit when two other staff started to blow dry my coif. But making me feel like a superstar for 10 minutes of blow drying didn’t change the fact that some kid had just hacked off at least a year’s hard work of growing out my hair.

The head stylist, Mr. Utility Belt came over to inspect it. His expression read “not good.” He pulled out his scissors and began an attempt at fixing my hair. I was offered iced tea. A fan was turned on from behind me, blowing strands of my hair in all directions before they had a chance to drop to the floor. When it was over, my iced tea looked like Snuffleupagus, and my haircut just as shaggy. A second mirror was lifted so that I could inspect the back. Things did not look well. Too scared to let any of the staff touch my hair again, however, I opted to leave the extra few inches of hair that extended beyond the rest realizing that a ponytail might be my only option for the next couple months (besides, who knew what they would do if the scissors got pulled out a third time), and I hightailed it out of the salon.

So now, a few days later, the shock has worn off and been replaced by marveling at my stupidity in choosing to get a haircut in Hanoi without so much as a picture to show the stylist (I should have at least clarified that he correctly understood my request). Luckily, hair grows. And while I’m disappointed that my attempt to finally grow my hair out has been foiled, well, the reality is I’ve never been so good at waiting for my hair to grow out anyways and actually like having shorter hair (its just that I had wanted to try something new…). Sadly, coming to terms with this new do doesn’t change the fact that this is without a doubt the worst haircut I’ve had, even worse than the time my brother cut my hair. At least a toddler can pull-off a home-cut until it grows out. At least with the party in the back I still have enough hair to pull back into a tiny ponytail.