February 3rd, 2019
Rain drops streak across the sunroof of my LYFT. I find it peaceful watching them roll across the glass. I’m on my way to LAX; final destination, Vietnam. In similar fashion to Paris, it’s snuck up on me. I’ve been too busy being lost in the noise of life. I spent all day yesterday driving around in an LA deluge, frantically seeing to last minute errands. Small lakes formed at intersections, sometimes as high as the hood of my car. No city planner, it appears, ever conceived of rain in the valley. A dark, gloomy, wet day. Meantime, all day anxieties crippled my brain as I go down to the wire on my tourist Visa. Now, suddenly ready to embark, I think, shit, is this really happening? I’m really going to Vietnam?! Yeah, I really am.
Why Vietnam? I have no idea what’s ahead of me, but I felt called for several reasons. Top five jump something like this: I wanted to see Asia. One trip isn’t seeing, but at least dip a toe? Anthony Bourdain’s: Parts Unknown Hanoi episode put Vietnam, and specifically Halong Bay, at the top of my destinations list. Vietnam is dirt cheap whereas other desired destinations (Japan!), a little too steep this time around. Vietnam allows me to visit a mix of city and country; so food, culture and countryside that sure does look pretty in pictures. Finally, I am drawn by our collective, complicated, American past with Vietnam. Hit pause and explore? My Mother has told me several times over the years how she was nursing me, a newborn, at the celebration in Central Park when the final US Troops were pulled out of Vietnam and our American involvement officially, completely over. That happened April 30th, 1975. I was a month old. Present day Vietnam is exactly as old as me. And they’ve never sent a card. No surprise here, my parents were anti-war activists. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a hippie. The war making a huge impact on them filtered into me growing up. My father, avoided service. But others I knew, like my best friend Eugene’s Dad, whose house was a second home, proudly served with distinction. He won several medals, including the Bronze Star for his heroism. Beyond the nuclear family, being a movie geek, I was raised on Vietnam War movies. Some I saw earlier than I should have. Between the ages of 9 and 18 I watched: Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War, Apocalypse Now, Heaven & Earth, Born on the 4th of July, Coming Home, Hamburger Hill, and my personal two powerhouse favorites, Good Morning Vietnam and The Deer Hunter. That’s just off the top of my head. But more than just “war movies”, the conflict and it’s effect filtered into hundreds of story lines and characters portrayed on screen during my youth. It’s filtered into National politics; our collective conscience. It was an elective I took in school! An unpopular, unsuccessful and the first ever televised war, it changed forever the way we act and think about engagement in foreign conflict. And as I said, I am part of the generation that came right after it. Raised in it’s political ashes. Toss all those ingredients into a bowl and one November night you see the price drop on a discount airfare flight site and click. How can I not be curious? Destination, Vietnam.
I fortify myself with a breakfast sandwich at LAX; soppressata, scrambled eggs, fontina cheese on sourdough. Spot hit. I’ve been up since 4am, partly planned. Vietnam is 15 hours ahead so I’m leaving in the morning but it’s the middle of night there. As it happens, I’m just crazy enough to think I can help grease the wheels getting myself on the right schedule. I set the alarm for 5am but I wake up at 4am anyway. I lie in bed for a long time indulging in Harlow cuddles, drifting in waking sleep. Still more nerves than anything else. But we’re working on that. This is my third solo international adventure in the past 2 years. Earlier this week I took a moment and reflected on my previous voyages interested to see if history had lessons. Here’s what I learned. First; enjoy the journey more. I think despite my exploding lust for travel, the schlep of the actual traveling, (airports, shuttles, buses, etc.) causes me a certain amount of anger and anxiety. This time, my assignment is to see the whole trip as fun adventure, no matter. Second, allow myself to settle in. Both with Belize and Paris, I arrived after hours of traveling, felt all wound up and unsure what to do with myself. Delightfully, it’s my belief this attempt to trick my time zones will help make it all the more fun. Place your bets!
Okay, let’s fully explore my plan to trick the time change adjustment gods. When I take off from Los Angeles at 11:25am it will be 2:25am in Hanoi plus 1 day. Here are the blueprints to seduce my body into Hanoi time zone. Step one! Wake up ridiculously early, like I said, 4am, hoping by the time I get on the plane, 11:25am, I can be tired and hence, sleep. Subnote: I am not a napper. Step Two! Take melatonin gummies before boarding. Step Three! Hello red wine. It’s a fun game/experiment with my body while we travel. Super progressive thinker over here. We’re doing stuff. Oh yeah, one last thing, I suffer from insomnia, which you probably know if you read this blog. What could go wrong?
24 hours. That’s the stated travel time on my ticket for this trip. I figure it’s more like 28 if you factor in the time I leave my apartment to the time I arrive at my hotel in Hanoi. There are no direct flights from the United States to Vietnam. Restrictions, which date back to the war, have never been lifted. During my research I come across the fun fact that Los Angeles to Ho Chi Minh City is the busiest, unserved air route in the world as of 2015. Tourism has grown 46% in the past 10 years in Vietnam, PS. So I will fly from Los Angeles to Guangzhou China, (lovely this time of year), then take a second flight to Vietnam. Around to the other side of the world. Breaks your head open a little when you think about it like that. In addition to Mission: Enjoy The Journey & “fun with experiments on my sleep cycles”, I’ve brought along the following in flight entertainment: Rough Planet Guide to Vietnam, Going After Cacciato, a novel by Tim O’Brien, Lindy Sports 2019 Fantasy Baseball Predications magazine (naturally) and my laptop for listening to music, writing and a special movie I downloaded for just the occasion: First Blood. Let the games begin!
Wait, you actually watched First Blood on the flight to Vietnam? Like, the first Rambo? Yes. I did. You see I was curious after some preliminary notes what impactful Vietnam movies I missed seeing and one stood out. The Rambo’s were on the banned viewing list from my parents. Later, I just never went back and caught. Whatever it spawned, First Blood did not start as Rambo became. Based on the popular book by David Morrell, First Blood was instantly purchased by Hollywood (Columbia first, later sold to Warner Brothers) and went through several actor and director combinations. Originally, it was bought for Burt Lancaster to play the Sherif and Betty Davis to play the Psychiatrist (role cut from final film). Who else was attached over the years? Paul Newman & Robert Mitchum (Sherif/Rambo combo) , Sydney Pollack (to direct) with Steve McQueen (as Rambo), Martin Bregman (to direct) with Al Pacino (as Rambo) and David Rabe (screenplay), Mike Nicholas (direct) with Dustin Hoffman (Rambo), to just name a few. It took ten years, many incarnations of a script no one was ever happy with and a list of many potential John Rambo’s to pass before the project eventually met Stallone. After his breakout success with Rocky, Stallone had 3 prestige projects tank at the box office. He had Rocky II coming out, but many believed he was flash in the pan and box office poison. He rewrote the screenplay himself and cameras rolled on First Blood. Apparently Stallone hated the first cut so much he tried to kill the project completely, but instead, they settled on cutting the majority of Rambo’s dialogue and most of his scenes from the movie. All the dialogue shifted to the Sherif & Colonel characters. This became a blueprint for action films to follow. The final fight sequence, when Rambo is shirtless, strewn in ammo and carrying a gun he stole off the back of an armored vehicle, is what most resonated with audience. Sylvester Stallone, as we know him, was born.
BUT, First Blood really isn’t that!!! It’s actually a beautifully shot film (Andrew Laszlo – DP), that’s trying to talk about PTSD before we had a name for it. It’s what art does; try to make sense of the times. The film starts with John Rambo trying to find an old army buddy only to hear he died of cancer. Rambo is the last surviving man from his unit. Wandering in a daze, he is immediately the ire of the local police department. The Sheriff, played by Brian Dennehy, drives up to Rambo (wearing army jacket and American flag) and says “wearing that jacket and that flag will get you into trouble around here”. That’s how he greets him!! The police arrest him for vandalism and then set in on torture, at which time, Rambo has a POW flashback, fights and runs. He quickly finds himself in the mountains, (supposed to be Oregon, but shot in Canada), pursued by angry and clueless police officers. It just escalates and escalates from the there. But even with all the action, First Blood never lets go of the message. Richard Crenna (Rambo’s former Commander, now a Colonel) and Brian Dennehy have long conversations on the morality of war and man’s violent nature. The climatic moment isn’t a fight or explosion, it’s Rambo having a full fledged breakdown, crying about the horrors of war, the memories that wont go away, his inability to adjust back to life. He ends up sobbing in the Colonel’s arms. First Blood , while mixed in it’s final results, is a cautionary tale about about living with the cost war, our treatment of returning soldiers and reconciling our Frankensteins. Funny how things start out, don’t you think? The films that follow turn into a tale of American muscle, manifest destiny and pure righteousness. All this pairs poorly with my Beringer (dry, minus acid, minus tannins, sour cherry and strawberry rubarb, no finish) . But silver lining, my seat mates clearly think I am insane.
On the 24 hour flight I also read some of the guide book, novel, fantasy baseball projections, and Best of Hanoi Nightlife article, make a list of my personal Top 100 movies of all time, (cause, why not?), I watch, in addition to First Blood, Beautiful Boy, (heart wrenching, dreamy, superb film) and the pilot episode of Billions. Take a fucking guess what I don’t do? Sleep. I can almost see the finish line, so let’s race through to the end! In China I go through immigrations, mini-customs, health screening, then security check again. I receive a VERY familiar and complete full body pat down. My “buy a guy a drink next time” remark hits like a brick with handsy-magoo. In the bathroom at the airport in China I practice an aim I never thought about having over a pristine ceramic hole in the floor. Another flight. A 20 minute wait a the airport while some teenager I just now met sorts my “On-Arrival Travel Visa”, (a service you pay for over the internet in preparation). And then, a taxi ride and, hours later, I am here, in Vietnam. It turns midnight as I ride from the airport to the hotel. It’s Tet, their New Year’s Eve, and most important holiday. Synonymous in my brain with “The Tet Offensive”. The air through the window smells like gunpowder. Fireworks are exploding everywhere. The bridges and roads are jammed with revelers. Couples kissing. Red balloons at every turn. My taxi weaves through abandoned scooters and crowds. Cheers, dancing, more fireworks. “Happy New Year” the hotel clerk greets me. I’m in Vietnam.