“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out and eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
Salutations lads and ladies! Hark ye! Heed my words! For I will play both steward and yoeman to guide you through this prose. I will recreate a tale of swordsmen, wenches, revelry, and good strong ale. The application of my words, a balm on the dull crowd of ear-bussing circling your lobes. Begin then, as I propagate Feast-finding dreams into your slumber. Goose this bauble into a quill! Here stands the prologue, the epilogue to follow anon. Trip with me fair maidens, the Renaissance Faire we fly to now, the bullseye of our aim.
Previously, the closest I came to a Renaissance Faire was High School. I won some rounds of the Shakespeare Union’s monologue competition. I won my school and the Borough only to get torched at the city finals by dueling Shylocks. You try taking down crying teenager’s, “Hath a Jew not Eyes” with Benedict from Much Ado’s comical, “I do much wonder”. But all the New York City finalists were invited to perform at the Westchester Renaissance Faire and that meant me too. The day of, they canceled the performance. It’s funny now to think about how upset I was. Nothing draws a crowd like a 16-year-old performing Shakespearean protesting how he’ll never marry. Oh, and a sonnet too. All I had imagined was a modest recreation of the Globe Theater and me bringing down the house. Have a feeling it might have gone a little differently. We’ll never know. Today, as I walk towards the entrance, a wry smile creeps across my face as I watch a girl get laced up into her corset in the parking lot. The closer I move to the gate, the more trucks and vans I see decorated for the event. Tonight happens to be the final episode of Game of Thrones. I thought this would be appropriately themed to get me in the mood. As I locate the digital ticket on my phone, I’m snapped into the moment when a heavyset, African American ticket taker dressed as a ruffian shouts to me, “Good day kind sir! Here to enjoy the merriment?”. I’m at the Renaissance Pleasure Fair, only minutes from Pasadena (as the advertising crows). He’s so on, I shrink and startle all at the same time. But I recover in short order, choosing a gracious bow instead of launching into accent and character. He returns the gesture and I’m inside. My first ever Renaissance Faire is a go. Oh, look, beer.
Libations first. I mean, always right? First and last? That’s a famous saying by someone super important, I’m sure of it. Gandhi? So I grab an ale from one of the beer wenches and begin my exploration. Side note: the prices for all the food and drink at the Renaissance Faire seem to end in 50 cents. Like $7.50 for this, $12.50 for that. And they always give you half dollars for change! I can’t help notice, assume it’s on purpose and find it oddly adorable! Where’s my leather coin purse?! Back in real time, I sip my ale and stroll down the dirt path that’s speckled with patches of grass. It’s an overcast day, but the sun picks its moments to shine through. The further I walk the more I am engulfed by the world. Blacksmiths ply their trade, butter is churned and quilts are sewn. I tour a myriad of period clothing shops, jewelry stands, woodworking displays, rare booksellers, fine crafts, swords, daggers, guns and Renaissance weapons of every kind. I take in some jousting and later some processional dances. There are a soothsayer and turtle races. Separately, I run into two casual acquaintances who both do a terrible job at hiding their judgment and confusion that I’m attending the Renaissance Faire by myself. “Wait, you’re here alone?!” I show considerable restraint passing on the ax throwing booth afraid my balky shoulder will tear clean off. I’m dumb enough to still try archery, but the wait is almost 45 minutes, so I begrudgingly walk away. I listen to a casual conversation between a pirate and serving wench about Russian literature. I inhale a quarter chicken and, okay, one more beer for safety sake. First and last. Maybe it was Malala?
A huge part of the Renaissance Faire experience that cannot be denied is the people. I’m in the minority today, dressed in jeans and thermal. Most, I’d say 3/4 of the people attending are dressed in costume. And many that aren’t quickly take advantage of the many buying opportunities to conform. There are no strict rules that apply when dressing up. While most people are in standard Renaissance attire, I also see the Three Musketeers (twice), the Man in Black (Princess Bride), Pirates, a variety of mythical beings, Avengers, Moulin Rouge dancers, and no less than ten Game of Thrones Khalessies. The dress may be the first recognizable component of character but not the last. Walk and talk is key; often loud, proud and in your face. There is no shortage of bad British accents, old English wording or limit to folks’ enthusiasm when using. And the more laced with sexual innuendo the better. The real beauty of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire is watching folks let their freak flag fly. Their joy and commitment bring such a huge smile to my heart.
I gotta say, I totally get the appeal. It makes sense for me, being a lover of Shakespeare, history, and Game of Thrones. I also think there is a larger appeal, seeing it, for most anyone. It’s a chance to explore another world. It’s something fun and different and an escape from ordinary life. I take a moment during my day to wonder who I would be in the world. But funny enough, despite my performer roots, the dressing up and parading around in character part does not call to me. Still, at one moment, in a sword shop, I spy a dagger I really like. While handling it, I notice the price is $65. I think to myself, “I’m gonna buy it” and then before I do the thought cuts through my excitement, “why do I need a dagger?”.
February 9, 2018
At 7:45 AM I’m fast walking through the overcast morning mist. I will not master Old Quarter Hanoi geography on this trip but I have memorized the path to and from my
local street Pho stand. Pho, it’s Vietnamese for what’s for breakfast? Out the hotel door, left, right at the corner, down two blocks, curve to the left and you’re there. I bow respectfully and point, to be answered with a hot bowl of soup and a smile. It’s easy to order here; she only serves one thing. My chopsticks swirl the onions, beef, and lime through the bowl. I slurp and contemplate my day as I watch an old woman perform her morning Tai Chi down the street. The Legend Beer building looms ominously over her. Sitting on the street, I watch the city start to emerge from the morning fog. The tables are communal. I sit with a mix of businessmen and grandmas. In Vietnam, then men are served first. An observation I fall into for a moment. Once you get past the newness of it, hot soup for breakfast makes all the sense in the world. I swallow the last drops of my Pho and pay my 30,000 Viet Dong (about $1.40). I retrace my steps back to the hotel. The bus to Ninh Binh should be picking me up at any minute.
Our tour guide Tran, Tina for our benefit, rattles off fun facts and anecdotes about Tet, the history of Vietnam and life in Hanoi. I’m back on a bus rolling towards Ninh Binh. Beside me on the bus is Jack. Jack is a 72-year-old retiree who enjoys traveling the world while his wife remains home in Sarasota. We do a fair amount of chatting. Destinations near and far are nothing new to Jack. He spent 32 years working overseas as an engineer for Chevron. When he tells me this he says it like, “I worked for this company, don’t know that you would have heard of it, it’s called Chevron”. Tran describes the dreaded 70 kilometers, 4 person scooter journey she usually endures every Tet with her father, mother, and sister to see their grandparents outside of Hanoi. I look out the bus window and watch similar configurations zipping down the dusty road. Tran tells us about the close cultural connection between Vietnam and China, about the days of arranged marriages and couples jumping from bridges denied their love because they were betrothed to another. In so many stories customs are mixed with religion mixed with superstition. In so many stories the horror of war and foreign invader oppression take center stage. She explains how tourism has become a driving force in the Vietnamese economy behind only rice and coffee. The bulk of Tran’s speech on the bus is a breakdown down of the cost of living in Hanoi, which leads into a long discussion about how poor they are in Vietnam and how difficult life is and how we should all be generous while visiting. I mean, basically. Thankfully it’s not a long bus ride.
Just like when I traveled to Halong Bay, the bus has a scheduled stop at what passes for a highway pitstop. The bus drops you off on one side of the complex and promises to pick you at the other side. You have fifteen minutes. After bathrooms, walking to the other side means passing through a makeshift store selling; arts, crafts, clothing, jewelry, souvenirs, booze, snacks, coffee, and food. If your gaze lingers too long on an item, or if heaven forbid you pick it up, you are swarmed by store employees eager to assist you to complete the purchase. There is always a stray dog I end up petting.
I’m gonna gloss lightly over the first part of my Ninh Binh day. That’s because we go to a temple and it’s madness. We are one of many busses that converge on the temple simultaneously. Tran seems unable to wrangle the group or adequately conduct an informative tour. Tran mostly runs to spots, we fight crowds to get to her while everyone snaps photos and selfies, we catch an out of place fact she blurts out and then she’s rushing us along. Wait, what? Who? Meanwhile, the sun has burned through the morning clouds and is making an aggressive assault on our skin. I catch something about emperors and signs and temples and dragons. This country loves dragons. Khalessi would do well here. The press of bodies angers me. Hawkers take photos of tourists and then insist on the subject of purchasing the photo. I watch it turn contentious as one woman finally breaks and yells at her pursuant “get away from me!”. More getting pushed and shoved in small temples sends me running off. I retreat, walking back towards the bus. I meet a Phillipino couple sitting on a bench outside. Like me, they ran from the madness. It tickles me they appear to be dressed to play golf. Tran frantically collects us as we walk over to lunch. I have lunch seated with the couple (but failed to record their names). He lives in Queens while she still resided in the Philippines. They are married but wading through Visa issues until she can join him. They seem very much in love. I’m warming up to the golf outfits. Thankfully I resist my impulse to be the whitest man I can be by asking if they know my friend Rrrramon. The lunch is the worst meal I have in Vietnam. I can’t sit still for long so I wander around. There isn’t much to see. When I walk around the cafeteria the poverty and filth of the place become apparent. It’s in the high-90’s and humid. I should buy a hat. I don’t buy a hat. So far the Ninh Binh tour leaves something to be desired.
A large collection of bicycles are piled in a center section of the dusty town of Tam Cốc, surrounded at a distance by vendors selling souvenirs and refreshments. Tran instructs us to find a bicycle and follow her. We’re taking a ride. I pull one out that looks good to test and discover it has a flat tire. I spy another of the same model, also a flat tire. Next to me, a local is yelling at a 20 something white girl who stripped down into Daisy Dukes and a sports bra for the bike ride. I gather it’s too much skin. In the typical rush, Tran has already started peddling leading a small fraction of our group who have successfully located a functioning bike down the path. Path? It’s impossible to tell what’s going on. Fifth time is a charm as I find my ride and roll after the group. In about a hundred yards the chain comes off. I’m having my very own Good Morning in Vietnam moment. Part of this tour is “bike ride in the country”. I tell myself to stay confident and flip the bike over on it’s back. I reach back to my nine-year-old self and attempt to rethread the chain. I know how simple an operation this is, but that in no way tarnishes my pride when I accomplish it for the first time in thirty years. My hands covered in grease, I remount the bike and start up again. Another traveler passes me on foot rolling his bike. The pedal broke off.
I jostle and shake down the dirt road. I half expect my bike to shatter into a hundred pieces each time I hit a bump. I have no idea where the tour is. The countryside is breathtaking; emerald green mountains rising in sound waves high into the sky beautiful. I have all the emotions. I spot a fellow traveler. He made his own detour in order to snap some photos and has also been separated from the group. He asks me where the tour went. I tell him I have no idea. In a French accent with the perfect je ne sais quoi attitude Marc responds “Oh well, we’re on our own now!”. I spend the rest of the day hanging out with Marc. We continue to ride along, making guesses about which direction the group may have headed. We stop often, taking photos, making jokes and getting lost in the splendor of the countryside. The land is magical. Hot, humid, dirty, undeveloped and majestic. We see a small group riding together on brand new mountain bikes, with helmets and elbow pads. The class warrior lodged in my soul scowls. Marc jokes “I didn’t see those bikes when we were choosing”. In true Tran fashion, when we finally catch the tour at a temple, she is leading them away. She seems bothered to see us arriving because it leads to the discovery she had lost us. She tells us to hurry like her hair is on fire. We roll our eyes a drag behind like disobedient teenagers.
Officially paired up, Marc and I wait our turn to embark on our boat ride. Marc is from Montreal. He’s French Canadian, eh? Marc lives cheaply, stores up enough vacation time and spends the entire month of February each year traveling abroad, plying his real passion, photography. Also avoiding February in Montreal. His photos are outstanding and make me wish he was along on all my blog adventures to supply the visual compliments. Marc has a gentle, vibrant and friendly nature. His passion for travel and people is pure and contagious. He’s a world-class friend for a day. Occasionally his English fails him and he apologizes for not being better at it. I always remind him it’s light years ahead of my French. Besides, it only gets in the way when I try to make distasteful jokes under my breath that he misses. As we wait in line for our boat Marc tells me I look like an Italian movie star. I don’t know what’s happening but I appear to be really good looking here. I keep fielding compliments. Vietnam must bring out my eyes.
Next, we’re on the water. Marc sits in front, then me and behind us, an old Vietnamese man rows our boat with his feet. Yes, his feet. It’s a common approach. Tam Cốc, located in Ninh Binh, is part of the Red River Delta of Northern Vietnam. The water is brown and murky lined by rice fields and mountains. We’re warned under no circumstances to go overboard, best not to tempt the piranhas. That’s when I declined the life jacket. “Water isn’t deep, but there are piranhas in it? You can hang on to that then”. Under a blistering sun, we spend the next two hours cruising down the river and back again. Hundreds of photos are taken. Photos of landscape, boatsmen, fellow travelers, birds, sky, temples and more. Marc’s professional camera shots make my iPhone pics look pitiful. Still, I keep snapping photos. I have no idea how I will narrow it down and choose for this entry. The boatsmen come in all ages, genders, shapes, and sizes. They seem numb to the swarm of tourists they ferry. They yell out and talk to each other during the whole ride, largely ignoring their passengers. I imagine someone is saying “I say we feed them to the piranhas!”. Goats make spotted white marks in the hills. At first just specs then we get closer and see them moving. Feel bad about the hot dog looking carts on our way in that had an entire roasted goat slung across the top. We pass under caves, sometimes so low inside you can reach up and touch the ceiling. The sun streaks through slits in the mountain tops. After the last cave, at the turnaround, boats filled with fresh fruit, drinks and candy float to sell refreshments. We buy some fruit and a gift for our driver. We enjoy mangos and bananas on our ride back. Our boatsman downs a Red Bull. Marc snaps a photo of another boatswoman passing who asks where we are from. When Marc says “Canadian”, then points at me and says “American”, at which time the boatswoman starts to chant “U-S-A Number #1”. And more mountains and more sun and more water and more rice fields and more caves and more conversation with Marc.
The bus ride back is long. For the first time, I hit traffic in Vietnam. We bake on a bus with no AC as the sun sets and we slowly creep back into Hanoi. At the rest stop, Marc and I keep up our getting to know you dance. He tells me how much he loves Southern California. He visited twice, that was back when he was with his ex-girlfriend. They rented a convertible and drove the coast as he snapped photos. He becomes reflective, “I really need to find another girlfriend like that,” he says. I agree. We both leave Hanoi tomorrow. There is a weight of anticipation that hangs in the air. It may have started poorly but I got a lot out of my Ninh Binh adventure. A very full day complete with a shabby bike ride, the boat trip down the river and the new friend made. I’m famous for taking it easy on vacation. Back in Hanoi, I eat a crepe filled with pork and shrimp, adding lettuce, red leaf and mint and then dipping in a soy-based sauce. Ending the day as I begin, eating.
Lately, I’ve felt like I’m not holding up my end of the promise of “wine” in this “wandering and wine” titled blog. So I have resolved to include a steady study of Los Angeles wine bars into the curriculum. I’m willing to make that great sacrifice for you, the reader. I know; heroic. So it begins one Friday in May, I’m rolling into Tarzana to meet my friend Rrrrramon at Unwind. Time to get our wine geek on. Where is this place anyway? Tucked neatly away, inside a maze of beige stucco, next to the iHop, I find my destination. At the bar of Unwind sits Rrrrramon. He spreads his arms wide for a hug.
Let’s rap about wine bars a bit, shall we? To start, I am not talking about a restaurant with a nice wine list, I am talking about a self-proclaimed wine bar. Vino, in some form or fashion, should be present in the title. Usually, they are cozy, shadowy, a touch vintage, a bit upscale, a dash of hip, with a slice of an ex-Pat in Paris in the 1950’s vibe. The best conditions for appreciating wine include generous natural light and a white surface to gauge color. But for wine bars, these tasting room rules don’t apply. Atmosphere baby, atmosphere. Even more important than ambiance is selection. It’s the first thing I look at. I start with quantity and quality but what I find separates the men from the boys is diversity and uniqueness. If a wine bar has six reds by the glass I have to deduct a point. And if all six are earthy with muted fruit then I know what the owner likes to drink, but again, I count it against the total score. Let’s investigate Chardonnay as an example for a quick moment. I’ll let you in on a funny observation: every person in the wine industry I’ve met claims to dislike Chardonnay, except for French (all wine lovers are Anglophiles, whether they admit it or not). This means they are drawing a line in the sand against the California big buttery oaky style. The French, by contrast, is more delicate, with citrus flavors prevailing. Magically, no one in the industry likes the most popular selling wines in the US. See, even in wine geek circles, folks are always fighting to be cool and hip. Sigh. However, if you own a wine bar, I need to see several expressions of the varietal on your list, showing off Chardonnay’s amazing diversity. I believe a wine list at a wine bar should have something for everyone, even that monster who wants a glass of butter and oak. Off Chardonnay, circling back to uniqueness; if all the wines are familiar, recognizable supermarket labels, more points are deducted. And please show some creativity beyond the six noble vines (Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling) and whatever is trendy at the moment (currently Malbec and Rose). Finally, we come to the service. Wines hold stories inside; this history of the vineyard, the conditions of the growing season and vintification, the reflection of the terroir in the flavor, the memories the flavors invokes, the progression of a glass. It’s a tall order but at the best establishments, your guide will help pair the perfect glass of wine for what you are craving and spin a tale while they do it. So simple really, we’re just looking for all of that.
Covell in Hollywood is the gold standard. I bring it up now, but I will wait till later in this survey to visit it to see if any other contenders are ready to challenge for the crown. Once I sat at their bar, decor the perfect mash of hipster Hollywood, and ex-Pat Paris and described what I wanted. Three samples were poured for me to investigate. I fell in love with a blend made by Vines on Mary Crest. I never forgot the name and once while running a half marathon in Paso, I happened upon the winery; a tiny Mom and Pop operation. The owner was pouring for us this overcast March morning. I told him about tasting his wine and Covell, loving it and never seeing it again. Vines on Mary Crest doesn’t distribute. They are too small. Like many small vintners in California, they make their living purely off their wine club and tourism. The owner from Covell drove around wine country and simply bought up cases. That’s how it wound up at the bar. That’s how I went from lounging at said bar describing what I had a taste for to going on a journey. That’s how I learned every wine at Vines at Mary Crest is named after a song because the winemaker used to be a musician. And I remember the way he opened bottles at our tasting with panache. I recently ordered wines online from Vines. Covell led me to that moment just by helping me that one day. There may have even been some cheese on hand when they did it. How great are wine bars?
Unwind has a classic, warm and welcoming feel. Formerly Peasant Wine Bistro, it’s had a recent change in ownership. Exposed brick and wood trim are illuminated by elegant, old school chandeliers watching from above. A thin, rectangular shaped restaurant, the bar runs parallel to the comfy plum colored cushioning lining the opposite wall. The energy is lively with a touch of intrigue. Unwind does a great job checking the ambiance box. The tables are all booked this Friday night. Rrrrramon and I settle in at the bar. I’m a fan of eating at the bar in general. I see more, hear more, interact with the place itself more when I do. I bounce around between saying hello to Rrrrramon, checking the Warriors vs Rockets playoff game on TV and diving into the wine list. Quick departure to say I love that this wine bar has sports playing on the TV at the bar. It feels as though they are catering to exactly me! Back to it, Unwind has a respectable list. Good, not great, in my opinion. There is a nice variety, with a mix of California local and wines of the world. I ask to try the Vouvray listed under “Worldly Whites”. Vouvray is a French wine region in Loire Valley where they make a great Chenin Blanc. If you don’t know, old world wines, easily defined by places that had kings; France, Italy, Germany, Spain, name their wines after the region of origin. Champagne, Chianti, Rioja, these are all regions, not grapes. Sangiovese is the main grape in Chianti wine, for example. In new world wines, California, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, we name our wines after the grape. Cabernet, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. Why? Cause we’re bratty teenagers I assume? The Benoit Gautier Clos La Lanterne Vouvray is an absolute delight! High acid, a touch sweet, pear, peach, lemon, and mango having a fruit party while catching the brides floral bouquet. Rrrrramon gives it a try and changes his order. I score geeky Somm points with my friend. Rrrrramon even texts me the next day asking what the name of the wine was that we drank. He made a new friend and starts his Vouvray journey. I find it really odd Unwind leaves the producer off the menu and just lists the region for imports. I asked to see the bottle. All that appears on the list is Vouvray, Cote du Rhone or Rose of Provence for examples. Worse, the bartender didn’t know the name of the producer. I did notice similar strategies last year in Paris and like I said, we’re all Anglophiles. Hmmm.
Rrrrrramon and I are starving so we split the escargot and fig and blue cheese bruschetta appetizers to start. I’m thrilled to find a partner in crime for my escargot obsession. My Grandpa Joe gifted me this love, but I often find myself the sole taker. Not this time and the friendship deepens with a new connection. My friendship with Rrrrrramon is, and has always been, a society of mutual food and drink obsession. The apps are killer. The fig and blue cheese bruschetta a masterpiece of sweet and savory flavors bouncing off each other. The escargot chewy, dripping with garlic and butter flavor. Yummy sounds abound. Armed with our glasses of Chenin Blanc, we talk about this and that. We discuss the final season of Game Thrones, Rrrrramon’s family, my job, his job, the film and television industry, ladies and mutual friends. Every so often I drift back to the TV to check on the NBA playoffs. In a strange dose of irony, none of my close friends in LA are sports fans, whereas I am obsessed. Rrrrrramon asks some really uneducated basketball questions. I fill him in on some of the drama in the matchup, guessing that’s what he’ll key into. I don’t have high hopes; he’s wearing a scarf. Rrrrramon loves scarves and I suppose I love mocking Rrrrrramon’s love of scarves. We’re very symbiotic in that way. France quickly becoming a theme of this piece, I continue my stay there for my second glass, but head to reds with the Saint-Amour Coeur de Gamay from Beaujolais. Again, we don’t get much in the way of education or instruction from our bartender. She is pleasant but hurried. I play steward for Rrrrrramon and I this night. Rrrrramon selects the Gamay as well. Clearly, I’m on fire with my selection this evening. My entree is less of a rock star than the appetizers. I try the parmesan crusted sole and herb risotto. It’s one big note of richness. Rrrrrramon seems happier with his grilled lamb chops. I eye them longingly. I do oh so enjoy the wine. Big tart cherry flavor with hints of spice. It goes down quickly. Rrrramon and I end up splitting one more glass between us. A chill invades the air. If you’ve been paying attention and think, “see it’s good Rrrrramon is wearing a scarf”, know that it doesn’t change a thing for me! I am gonna go right on shaking my head about its existence. Besides the scarf, Rrrrramon is the perfect company. It’s been way too long since I last saw my friend. Must be better about that, we both agree with future promises. Saying that a lot these days. Living for the moment, tonight we are thick as thieves. We bear our opinions and hearts perched at the bar over glasses of vino. In that respect, points won or points deducted, Unwind fulfills it’s purpose brilliantly. What else really can you ask for? Excelllent atmosphere, solid selection, great appetizers, passable service, extra credit for sports on the TV. Give Unwind a go.
And I did a terrible job with photos. But the website has some nice pictures.
February 8, 2019
It’s dusk, and I’m walking the streets of Hanoi. The first few days I was here locals apologized that so much was closed as a result of the Tet holiday. The city never felt sleepy to me. “Anyone who can will take off the first three days” I was commonly cautioned. It’s day four of Tet and true to report the already bustling Hanoi has exploded. Freshly back from Halong Bay, tears in the seams of me started to show back in the hotel room, so here I am navigating the streets. My mission: coffee and a place to read before dinner. Fleets of scooters honk and zip their way past me. There are very few sidewalks in Old Quarter Hanoi, so I am walking in the road, dodging said scooters, as well as pedestrians, litter, and pop-up food stands. It’s controlled chaos and it’s a mystery how it stays controlled. I have a particular fascination with the composition of passengers on a scooter. A family of four? A man riding with three dogs? I see them both and more. One scooter screeches to a stop right in front of me. The older man driving produces a small brown bag from his pocket and stage whispers, “Marijuana?”. My attempts to master Old Quarter Hanoi geography is failing miserably. At least I am not alone. “I’m so turned around, this place is a bloody maze!” shouts one Australian. And it is. I am walking in circles, being swallowed up by the hoard of smoke and bodies. Tonight it’s an orchestra playing a symphony of dissonant tones, street Rachmaninoff, a concert of crowds sounds pulsating with life and gasoline and odor. It’s Thursday night in Hanoi.
“That’s the best banh mi in Hanoi” said Daisy, pointing an enthusiastic finger at the street food eatery I now sit at, patiently waiting for my sandwich. Daisy, my ethereal Halong Bay tour guide told us there were three signature Vietnamese dishes we had to try, made best here in Hanoi; pho, bun cha, and banh mi. She more than cast aspersions we would not be able to find these dishes at the same elite level elsewhere in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City? “They make everything sweet” she said disparagingly. Earlier, I walked in circles, never found the coffee shop, the restaurant Ash & Sip recommended was closed, and then I saw this banh mi spot of legend, Thanh Hop Pho Ga. This is the one Daisy had pointed her finger out the window at just before the bus dropped me off at the hotel. When I saw it, I said fuck it to the coffee and reading plan and asked the barker for a table to get my banh mi on. By table, I do of course mean a tiny, child-sized plastic, Coca-Cola table with tiny child-size chairs set on the street. All the seating looks occupied but the barker runs across the street and sets up a new table, just for me, on a patch of open sidewalk. Thanh Hop Pho Ga just opened a second location. And it’s only just me for a second because soon they have crammed five tables at spots across the street and are running back and forth dodging speeding scooters. No shortage of honking, car exhaust, cigarettes, beggars, beers, laughter, and FaceTiming. The young locals are always FaceTiming in Vietnam. I’ve never seen the technology put to even a fraction of this use anywhere else. Of course, I order the banh mi and breaking from my traditional holy trinity of beverages (coffee, water, booze), I order a green tea soda. And we’re back to the beginning; of the paragraph at least. I’m waiting for my meal.
As a restaurant lifer, I can’t help but get lost watching the mechanics of the Hanoi street food operation. There is a distinct system in place. It goes a little something like this… it’s built to run by a three-person team. Your entree to the world, of course, the server. Can be a guy or a girl, but always young. This one server is taking every “table”. Generally, the guys are friendlier, working overtime on their devil may care attitude while being completely flustered. The ladies are more focused, attractive and aggressively unfriendly. The server also runs the food, and if they have time, helps seduce new customers. Naturally, we have our cook. Usually, this is the oldest member of the team. I’d say 60-40 female to male ratio. The best find a zone becoming practiced, precise, cooking machines. The cook is always surrounded; ingredients laid out in tubs on the left, dirty pots and rinsing station on right, (the cook is also their own dishwasher), and whatever cooking apparatus (wok, grill, etc.) resides directly in front of them. It’s like they are 80’s keyboard players surrounded by synthesizers. The song they are playing is Hanoi street food. The third and final member of the team is the bank. He/she holds the money on his/her person. They collect the money, make the change, fill in as second barker, order taker, runner, dishwasher, and new seating across the street builder as needed. Many have a seeing the whole game, manager vibe, but not all. Sometimes it’s clear the server is the boss, and at the morning pho stands, it’s always the cook who’s in charge. I think about the many health inspector visits I’ve been present for at restaurants past as I stare at food piled in plastic tubs uncovered and unrefrigerated on the street. Also, while I watch the dishes being scraped, washed and “rinsed”, in tubs on the pavement. Is it wrong I like the element of risk? Most places don’t have names. That doesn’t mean they are not memorable. They are known by their location and their dish. Some have lines and certain cooks draw crowds. The majority focus on only a few or even just one item. These setups are efficient, fast-paced, unregulated, lively, and delicious.
My banh mi arrives. The “best banh mi in Hanoi” – a baguette, two over easy eggs, pork sausages, cucumbers, cilantro, with a side of limes and chilies. Sweet baby Buddha it’s a great sandwich. Give me a beat and I’ll break it down… the spiced fattiness of the sausage, the richness of the egg, against the freshness of the cucumber, off the zest of the limes, with the earthiness of the cilantro, and heat of the chili! Some assembly required inside a brilliantly baked French baguette. The banh mi eats fresh and indulgent. I wash greedy bites down with green tea soda. A little sweeter than I expected but it’s fun drinking. I didn’t realize how hungry I was. It’s accurate to say I wolf it down. And now I dream about that banh mi. While eating I muse, “this would be really good hung over”. I debate ordering a second, but I think better of it. Being rolled down the street by her father to an alarmingly loud portable karaoke machine is a small child singing. The ear piercing volume crashes my banh mi party. Her sister talks on the phone while absentmindedly collecting money from the pedestrians. The little girl singing is belting her lungs out. It’s the unpleasant soundtrack to the end of my meal. I stop licking my fingers to wince. Then I ask for the check.
I go back to wandering Hanoi at night. I go back to drinking Tiger beer at Bia Hoi Junction. I go back to eating. With room to spare in my belly having forgone a second banh mi, I buy a red bean bun from a street vendor. You see, I was taught to eat my way through countries; traveling and discovering culture being inseparable from frantic mass food consumption. “The locusts are coming”, literally being a proud family motto from my childhood. One is buzzing around Hanoi this night in February. Down the dark, winding streets I buzz.
Growing up, every year for my birthday I got to choose whatever meal I wanted and Mom would faithfully execute. This is what food as love in action looks like. Maybe it’s cultural; my Jewish and Italian heritage combining into one Voltron superhero of “let me feed you!” power. But I’m guessing some other folks out there of different backgrounds may have had a similar childhood experience in relation to food and family and love. Cornish game hens and chocolate fondue, that was young Johnny’s meal pick for many years running. It’s funny to think now. It’s a funny choice. My sister’s birthday meal was braciole, can’t recall the desert, but my hunch is she can. This custom has never stopped, only evolved. Now, Mom takes me out to eat every year on my birthday. Seafood has become the theme. It started years ago back in New York when Blue Water Grill became part of the tradition. Blue Water Grill is now closed, Mom and I both live in Los Angeles, but the fruit of the sea theme has remained. Busy schedules and a bad back have delayed this years’ birthday dinner, but on a Wednesday night in April I pick up Mom after work and we head to Lure Fish House.
In their own words “Lure Fish House is a family-owned restaurant featuring the freshest, sustainable seafood from trusted sources.” There are four locations from Thousand Oaks up to Santa Barbara. I have eaten in two. Actually, I have eaten in those two. Lure does a great job delivering on all your seafood restaurant needs. It’s a bright, fresh, clean atmosphere; like you’re dining at the rustic, yet fancy cabana of a movie star. A white, blue, grey color scheme prevails. Nautical artwork is simply placed. The menu has a generous mix of the offerings you hope for. They aren’t reinventing the wheel with bold, creative cuisine. Lure is about fresh seafood in classic styles done right. It’s upscale, but not so much they don’t have a TV playing sports at the bar. I have never had a bad meal there.
The weather is as topsy turvy as the world these days. The scary truth is that’s something we should start getting used to, but I’m not yet. As we make our way from the car Mom laments the unpredictability. It’s been flip-flopping between chilly and blazing hot. Did she bring a warm enough jacket? And how will the wind wreak havoc on her hair today? I tease her and she tells me I am mean. I remind her she teased me as a kid, it’s not my fault but it is poetry that I grew up to be so much better at it. This is some of our usual mother-son banter. I try to snap some photos for this entry and Mom demands photo approval. This only leads to more teasing on my part. We grab a table for two.
While the spirit of the birthday meal has remained the same, things have gotten more decadent over time. Eastern & Fanny Bay Oysters comprise the dozen that is our first course. The Eastern Oysters shine. I’m big on dressing up my oysters, so lemon has been squeezed, a dollop of horseradish added, a dip of cocktail sauce and down they go; briny, creamy and mineral. I selected the Sanford Gravity Flow Chardonnay from Santa Barbara to pair with my seafood delights. It shows medium acid, medium plus silky body, with lemon, nut, bread, and lychee flavors. It drinks great on its own and marries well with my dinner. Mom favors reds so I pardon the faux paz and order her the Meiomi Pinot Noir. It dances to a medium minus acid, medium body, with cherry, strawberry, wet leaves, leather, and roses tune. Grapes are sourced from Monterey, Santa Barbara, and Sonoma. This Pinot Noir perfectly showcases the fruitier California style of the varietal verses the earthier more muted French tradition. Lure takes smart advantage of it’s proximity to wine country to populate its’ list with many local labels. Both wines shine for us this evening. I take a stab at conducting an impromptu wine education class with Mom. It does not go well. “Hold the wine up, really stick your nose into the glass and take a breath, what do you smell?”, “Wine”. Sigh. There must be some poetry in this revenge as well. I wonder what I refused to learn. “You’re being stubborn,” I say, “I’m not. It smells like wine.” Mom retorts. “Try again please, this time just concentrate on cherries, really take your time, can you smell cherries?”, immediately she says, “Still just smells like wine”. While I brood, convinced she’s not trying, Mom is laughing at my frustration. But no matter, our lobsters have arrived. I did say more decadent.
While I’m dunking my lobster meat into melted butter and popping it in my mouth, I think about how lobsters were once the food of the poor. Insects of the sea. Few meals eat as rich and self-indulgent to me. The fire engine red shell giving way to sweet, chewy, savory goodness. Due to arthritis in Mom’s hands I have to help her break open parts of the shell. We make our way through claws, legs, and tails as we chat about family, my niece’s upcoming visit, our dogs and, as always, in my family, politics. Times have changed but tradition remains. It’s my birthday and I am eating exactly the meal I want to commemorate. Lure is a fine establishment to do just that.
It’s too soon to say how successful this one will be, but crossovers are nothing new. You may not remember but back in 1986 Angela Lansbury’s Murder She Wrote character took a vacation in Hawaii only to find herself solving a murder with the one and only Magnum P.I.! Try to forget these memorable mixes; The Jeffersons and The Fresh Prince (1995), Alf meets Gilligan’s Island (1987), The X-files teams up with Cops (2000), The New Girl and Brooklyn 99 (2016) to name only a few. Sometimes it works and sometimes you just think, why? But hey promotion, synergy, chocolate and peanut butter coming together and forming something delicious and new, there are plenty of reasons to cross. Sometimes something is so good we can’t resist forcefully marrying it with something else. I give you Puggles. The public wants what the public wants. What’s That Smell is a “sometimes humorous” podcast about anxieties. theresjohnnywanderingandwine.com and What’s That Smell are about to get it on. Crossover!
If you don’t know them already then it’s my pleasure to introduce you to What’s That Smell?. The podcast is the brainchild of my dear friend and collaborator Tommy Metz III and his dear friend and collaborator Pete Wright. I’ve never met Pete, he lives in Portland Oregon, so obviously, hygiene is a concern, but I feel I know him all the same. That’s because these two middle-aged guys are talking with great candor, pathos, and humor about their many anxieties; anxieties in general. It’s humanizing, funny and easily relatable. I find it a great example of the little ways we search in this busy confusing modern world to create and connect. I’m honored to share the stage with them. And the stage is a scary one. A serial killer lurks and we only have 45 minutes to piece together all the clues and get out before we die! That’s because this podcast episode discusses an escape room related anxiety. Hence we’re starting out our adventure dear readers, in lovely and scenic Sylmar. It’s time for, THE BASEMENT: A Live Escape Room Experience.
I pull into the parking lot of THE BASEMENT my usual 20 minutes too early. Right next to the escape room is Adult Factory Outlet so I immediately take out my phone and text everyone who is meeting here, “arrived early, gonna check out next door so come in and get me when you arrive”. Then I wait. Tommy is the first to arrive. He casually strolls up to the Adult Factory Outlet, oh so cautiously about to make his entrance when he hears me giggling from my car. Naturally, we go in to kill time together. The rest of our party for the escape room fun consists of Joy and Darnell and Lauren, who Tommy affectionately calls, The Laurnells. It’s like Brangalina, but with a happier ending and no Jennifer Anistons were harmed in the making of this union. Pete has already attended THE BASEMENT Portland. We are also paired up with 3 strangers whose names I fail to commit to memory. Hey, it was a stressful time. Besides they might die, no need to get attached. One has an accent. Feel better? We sign some waivers and read about the serial killer Edward Tandy who’s lair we are about to enter. This is my third ever escape room, thanks to Joy who’s mildly obsessed. This marks her ninth. Tommy is also entering number three. The Laurnells are escape room virgins! THE BASEMENT boasts to be the #1 Escape Room in the United States. Challenge accepted. There are several rooms, today we are beginning at the beginning, the basement itself.
The adventure starts when we are lead into a small room and asked to watch a safety video. Kudos to THE BASEMENT, they’ve jazzed it up. The rules are being read to us by a prisoner of Edward Tandy who is being held and tortured. Then, we’re instructed to put a black cloth hood over our heads! Standing in the darkness with a black hood over my face some light does shine through and I strain to see what I can make out. Since we’re crossing over with an anxiety podcast, let’s pause here for a moment. It’s the funny thing I have discovered about myself and scares. Tommy and Joy LOVE to be scared. I never understood it in this way until we all became so close. They love that feeling, that sensation of fright. They open themselves up to it at any haunted house, horror movie or escape room. I always falsely assumed people who loved horror films and the like didn’t get scared; my assumption being they were attracted to the macabre and also had thicker skin. Why else would they watch so much? Boy was I wrong. My reaction is very different. I become hyper alert in these situations, convinced I can anticipate any fright headed my way, thereby diffusing it. No one really wins my way. I either successfully avoid the scare by outwitting it or I get scared and get angry at the fact that I did. I now love watching Tommy and Joy get scared, even if the same fun is lost on me. Maybe What’s That Smell will decode the science behind my fear. Maybe it’s primal, a stronger fight or flight response governing me. Back to the darkness, screams, and threat of capture; I’m on alert, ready to outwit and outfight any escape room nonsense when the hoods come off. Suddenly, I am much calmer. We’re standing in a small anterior chamber, a wire fence separating us from the rest of the room. It’s all dark and creepy. The clock begins, Edward Tandy threatens, we’ve got 45 minutes.
Obviously, I don’t want to give too much away. If you’ve never been to an escape room, you find clues, unlock keys, and solve puzzles with the ultimate goal to get out before the time is allotted. They are usually themed. The puzzles you solve can be riddles, numerical sequences, or simply finding where a key is hidden in the room. THE BASEMENT is a whole lot of fun. It’s hands down my favorite of the three I have participated in. It’s decorated extra spooky. The Edward Tandy theme is nicely carried throughout. The game spills into additional unexpected places. In one room we meet Rick, a live actor playing one of Tandy’s victims whom we discover chained up in the bathroom. In another room, Tommy finds a jacket that fits him like a dream. It’s very dark. A variety of Edward Tandy themed noises are pumped in. Everyone on our team contributes but I, for one, never have a clear picture of the whole puzzle. I guess I don’t need to; someone else does. I’m more escape room explorer than team leader type. With 19 seconds left on the clock, we escape. Take that Ethan Hunt!
Drunk on our victory, we head out for beers. It’s a six-minute drive to Truman House Tavern, crossing out of Sylmar and into the town of San Fernando. There is not much to see on the drive. These are forgotten, unsexy, Los Angeles suburbs. We gather at Truman House for food and drink and to decode the experience. Tommy utilizes his iPhone to record our discussion for the podcast. THE BASEMENT post-mortem is underway, “did any parts make you anxious”, but I get distracted by Truman House itself. First of all, why are the lights up so bright? Who’s the manager here? Ambiance people! The exposed brick, ironwork and wide open dining room generate a warehouse feel to the restaurant. In true gastropub style, it’s a fun selection of micro-brews on draft, burgers, fries, and other elevated bar fare. It’s a cute spot and standing room only this Saturday night. I start with the Lincoln Beer Company Trejo’s Cerveza. It tastes exactly like warm shitty no flavor Mexican beer. I say that with love. But the Pan Seared Cauliflower (tahini citrus dressing, wheat free croutons, toasted pumpkin seeds, chives), is a revelation. The tahini citrus dressing is out of this world good. We’re practically licking the plate once we are finished. Next, I take on the Braised Beef Sliders and truffle fires, this time with a MacLeod Ales Deal with the Devil IPA. Naming a beer is like naming a kid in 2019, everyone feels the need to be quirky and unique. Gone are the days of “Mike” and “Lager”. The food, the beer, and the company are a study in merry delights. No anxiety here as we drink and laugh together. THE BASEMENT and Truman House Tavern both rated a success by our discerning panel of 5. Make your plans now. I can’t speak to what Tommy and Pete may have picked up here. I assume on the What’s That Smell? podcast there will be lots of Tommy saying stuff like, “Johnny was so brave and gallant in the escape room it made me anxious” kinda thing. I guess you’ll have to listen to find out.
February 7th, 2019
Continued from part 1…..
From a dead sleep, I bolt up in my bed. At first, I think a helicopter is circling the boat. They’ve found me!! But this isn’t a movie so I step out onto my cabin’s balcony to see what I can see. We’ve drifted close to a fishing boat. It’s all lit up, shining loud in the darkness of the bay. I’m forced to shade my eyes against the brightness. The fishing boat’s engine hums. I watch for a moment but I’m so tired I retreat back inside. I check my iPhone, it’s 2:30 AM. I flop back down into my bed. I wonder what they are catching. My brain sorts through details of the night before. I remember Daisy gently asking us not to participate in the squid fishing demonstration because fishing or hunting during the first days of Tet is considered bad luck. I float over the spring roll cooking class from earlier and the puzzle game we couldn’t solve. I remember hanging on the top deck drinking and laughing with Ash and Sip until my eyes started to shut against my will. I thought for sure tonight I’d sleep soundly. But after the fishing boat wakes me up I am tossing and turning. How are they avoiding the bad luck of fishing during Tet? Probably have no choice, I hypothesize. I continue to roll and readjust convinced eventually I will find a comfortable position in which to lie. Soon the sun dawns on my third day in Vietnam. Begrudgingly, I take a pass on morning Tai Chi. Instead, I lounge on my balcony, trading off between reading my book and gawking at Halong Bay as we drift through. I don’t want to miss one limestone island. Before I know it it’s time for breakfast, more importantly, coffee.
After breakfast, the boat drops us off at one of the larger islands in Halong Bay for some cave exploration. With Ash & Sip as my companions, we climb narrow stairs adorned with jungle foliage, surrounded as always by stunning vistas of the bay. Then we take a step down and disappear through a small opening into the island. A few well-placed floodlights cast moody shadows and bring the cave to life. Floor, walls, and ceiling have been contoured by the tide; the water having sculpted scoops, slides, points, crests and drippings. There is no guide here or information provided. We are left to our own imagination. I find myself wondering, when did the water come up this high? The cave entrance must be three stories high. How long ago did it carve these shapes? I dream science fiction dreams. It is, after all, like stepping into another place in time. Traffic has bottlenecked at the entrance and exit to the cave. No one is managing the flow of bodies as several boats have now dumped their passengers for cave viewing. It’s getting crowded as we head out to a little beach on the other side of the cave. A Shiba Inu sleeps curled up in the sand. I look around trying to figure out to whom he belongs. I decide he belongs to the island. Or better yet, the island belongs to the dog. A little mange, but otherwise hard to imagine when I have seen a mutt look so peaceful. He’s quickly the hot photo op for fellow tourists. Ash jokes this dog is gonna be all over Instagram. He’s an influencer, I counter. Then I point out to Ash that Sip is snapping a shot. Then I do too. Deep breaths on the beach, more cave exploring, up the stairs and back down onto the boat. Halong Bay is flying by. Too fast, way too fast; slow down.
Back on board the boat, it’s time for more breathtaking scenery. Perched on the top deck along with my companions, the cameras’ never stop clicking. “It’s just amazing” is uttered more than thrice. Our team has been separated by those staying on for 3 days and those of us concluding here with 2. There are only 5 of us left, myself, Ash & Sip and an Austrian couple. But we’ve still got Daisy, so it counts as winning. It’s our final afternoon aboard Swan Cruise so we do the only sensible thing; we drink. I abandon tepid wine and shitty bear for a mango margarita. Sip uses her fancy camera phone to pose a photo of me. “You’re single, right? We need a good dating profile pic”. We talk more about travel. About life. Ash and Sip ask if I would ever live in England. I’m lost in a daydream of a Hugh Grant styled romantic comedy. Ready to move. Life is about to be so clever all the time! And I’ll have quirky, devil may care, friends! I do worry a bit about missing baseball. We joke and drink and joke a little more. Sooner than I would like we are exiting the boat. In a flash we’re back on the bus, Mr. Handsome revving the engine to take us home to Hanoi. We’re merged with another group who takes umbrage we’ve spread out given the false information we had the bus home to ourselves. They’re rude and Sip is ready to throw down. I have a proud Team Swan Cruise moment. The ride home is full of chatter and sadness. Once more with feelings, all of Halong Bay has gone way too quickly.
The bus drops us off one by one. My friends go before me. It’s hard to see them go. The sun is just setting when I hug Daisy goodbye and say farewell with a fist bump to Mr. Handsome. I walk up the block to my Hotel. Once inside, I am uncharacteristically undone. Is it lack of sleep or Hanoi or saying goodbye or all three. Either way, I can’t sit still. So I do what I do. I bang back out into the night.
Nothing says Puerto Rico like the Los Angeles Lakers. Okay, I can’t back that up with facts. It’s just a feeling. Okay, that also doesn’t match up; just checked in with my feelings. What I can say is friend Mark was in town and we ate some Puerto Rican food and then went to a Laker game. If it doesn’t match, I suppose it’s a little like us. From 7th to 12th grade (Form I through VI if we’re being precise ) we attended Poly Prep together. We rode the same bus to and from school every day. Always cordial, never close. On opposite sides of the country, twenty plus years since the last time we saw each other at graduation, we connected again. Now we are breaking bread and attending sporting events together. We even have an honest, thoughtful conversation about politics, despite Mark leaning right and I left. Scandalous I know! Don’t tell our respective parties cause in 2019 that’s a stoning offense for conspiring with the enemy. But the odd pair we are doesn’t seem so odd when we hang out. Like Puerto Rican food and Lakers basketball. See, I made it work.
Mark texted a few weeks ago asking if I ever considered blogging about Caribbean food, specifically Puerto Rican or Dominican. These cuisines are particularly close to his heart. The Puerto Rican and Dominican communities and hence food, are very present in New York City. That has not been my experience in Los Angeles. Are there such restaurants here in La-La Land? Mark was prepared and even sent me links to websites. It just so happens the only Puerto Rican restaurant in Los Angeles (at least, only one that comes up on Yelp besides food trucks) is in my neighborhood. Funny that. I had a plan two weeks ago to check out Mofongos but work ran long that day and I punted. Sometimes things work out for best. US and Puerto Rican flags flap in the breeze above the entrance on a perfect Spring day as I walk into Mofongos, and see my smiling friend rising to greet me.
Mofongos certainly feels authentic. Caribbean music plays as a lazy fan turns above our heads. The room is painted a pale orange as if faded over time by the sun. Masks hang on the wall and a map of Puerto Rico adorns the top of our table. I would say it looks a bit rundown but instead words like authentic, genuine and homey spring to mind. And who cares what it looks like, it smells divine. When do we eat? Mark makes some suggestions and I find I can’t resist the specialty of the house. I order Pork Shoulder Mofongo choosing the pork cracklings over chicken when offered, cause it’s the other white meat kinda day. Mofongo is a traditional Puerto Rican dish, where plantains are fried and mashed with garlic, salt and who knows what else, served with a protein and in broth. Here at North Hollywood Mofongos, the plantains are shaped into a volcano of sorts, with my pork erupting out. To say it’s tasty is an understatement. My mouth is watering from the memory as I type. I also try the Morir Soñando which is Orange Juice with evaporated milk. It tastes like drinking a lite orange Sherbert. It’s a meal for the soul.
The conversation is as heartfelt as the food. Mark and I cycle through a number of topics. We discuss life in our forties; how we’re holding up and how we’re not. We talk about our shared experience working multiple jobs with a midlife shift in career focus, a few words about some old High School classmates, we touch on dating and food and families and religion. Our server Angel even joins in the conversation for a stretch. He tells us people from all over Los Angeles make the pilgrimage to Mofongos for a taste of home. Since this is Los Angeles, Angel is here attending New York Film Academy studying to become an actor. Born in Puerto Rico, he also reveals he happened to be home for Hurricane Maria. As he describes the manner in which the tragedy has crystalized the importance of family for him, I can’t help getting lost in the ugly scope of it. Nearly 3,000 dead still without adequate disaster relief or clean drinking water. I hate this all too familiar feeling of impotence against suffering and injustice. Thankfully Angel’s smile is contagious, the company sound and the Pork Shoulder a savory delight. I get to slip back into the privilege of not thinking about it.
Happy and full Mark and I hop into a LYFT to the Staples Center. It’s a world-class auditorium. Sadly this game is not the playoff push we hoped to see when we purchased tickets back in January. The Lakers are running their offense through JaVale McGee tonight. But there is no shortage of flashing purple lights, “ooohs” and “aaahhs”, Laker Girls, swishes, and all fashion of entertainment. Mark and I talk a lot of sports. This too is good for my soul. The Lakers pull out a victory. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the leading scorer. I just included that fact cause I love his name. Mark and I stroll a little ways away from the stadium continuing our relaxed chatter before calling our respective rides home. The night air is perfectly cool. Spring is here and tonight everything feels about rebirth.
February 6, 2019
I find my Zen where it always waits for me; on the water. Kayaking on the other side of the world I am at peace. Daisy sits in front of me. Her conical hat prominent in my foreground, the expanse and wonder of Halong Bay, a stunning canvas, shines brilliantly in backdrop. I paddle our kayak past the emerald green water and limestone monolithic islands that populate Halong Bay; over 1,600 to be not so exact. Some are hollow and you can walk through caves carved by water long ago. Every individual island has a name. Ha long means “descending dragon”. Dragons are big in Vietnam. The legend of Halong Bay goes a little something like this; when Vietnam was first becoming a country, the Gods sent dragons to help protect the land and it’s people from foreign invaders. They descended into the bay. The islands the shape of a dragon’s spine made permanent by jewels and jades spit from the beasts’ mouth. And so the bay became unnavigable to foreign invaders. Then there is some science stuff about tectonic plates and volcanic activity erupting forming the many jungle islands. Who believes that nonsense? I prefer the bit about the dragons. How do I find the words to describe this place? Ancient. Mythical. Fantastical. Parts of Peter Jackson’s King Kong was shot here. If a giant gorilla sat atop one of these islands I wouldn’t even flinch. I almost expect it. In terms of places I have been, I can only compare Halong Bay to Niagra Falls or the Grand Canyon. The sheer magnitude of it’s natural wonder is astonishing. The gentle rocking of the kayak on the water calms me. Our boat leads the group towards a welcoming beach on one of the islands. I can only hear about half of what Daisy is saying. I do catch when she calls out to the rest of the group, “watch out for the crocodile”, then flashes me that irresistible Daisy joke smile. I check in with Ash and Sip off to my right, and steer us parallel so Daisy can snap a good photo. Every breath is precious here. I work to memorize each detail. All the while I push myself to paddle hard. I am a one man operation against plenty of two’s but no way I’m gonna loose our leader status. Arms, back and shoulders engaged. I’ve jumped into the middle though. Here on the water, bad form, a show stopper deserves it’s opening act. And so many parts of getting here have weight. A proper introduction to the national treasure that is Daisy, for instance. Meeting Ash and Sip who somehow manage to leap into my heart. The facts, phrases and anecdotes I pick up as Mr. Handsome drives us from Hanoi through poverty and rice fields to Halong Bay. No choice but to go back and jog forward again. But one more moment of peace on the water first. Can I get an Om?
The night before is a new traveling low for sleep. The room is hot, the bed uncomfortable and every little noise catches my ear. But really, it’s me. During one pee break I spend an awful long time considering the white hose next to the toilet. It looks like a faucet spray hose you’d find atop your kitchen sink. Delayed night mind eventually finds it’s way there. It’s a bidet. What does 100 years of French occupation get you? French press coffee and a clean asshole. Running tally. There is a bidet in every bathroom I visit in Vietnam, including a public bathroom in a park. Thus concludes the bidet recap section of this blog. Eventually I cry “Uncle” to the long night. I get out of bed and workout with the elastic band I travel with while watching British CNN. There has been a terrorist attack carried out using American military equipment suggesting illegal arms sales. The phrase “no news is good news”, has unintentionally become the slogan for our time.
At 8am I am picked up in my hotel lobby by Swan Cruises for my trip to Halong Bay. The vision provided by Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown Hanoi episode of Halong Bay had me conclude “I will go there”. The bus pulls out of Hanoi. When I first see Daisy I think to myself, interesting, the tour guide is 12. Daisy’s real name is Zhou and at first I decide I will respect her and call her that but I never do. The guides all adopt English names. See, once she’s yelling “team Daisy ready?” and we all cry back enthusiastically “ready!”, it’s basically settled. Daisy might stand 5’1” and weigh 85 lbs. Might. What she lacks in size she more then compensates for in personality. A born comedian, with electric charisma and a blindingly bright demeanor, this tiny girl is our fearless leader for the next two days. We’re so damn lucky. My favorite is watching her crack up at her own jokes, which she does often. I love people who love to be silly. She’s not 12, she’s 23, majoring in English and Russian at University. Let that crack your cold war brain open. The allusion to the Russians being, “good to her father” is part of the complicated web of life we are all caught in. She introduces our bus driver simply as Mr. Handsome. He never removes his sunglasses. Or speaks. But somehow he projects a calm protective demeanor that makes it feel like Vietnamese Secret Service is escorting us on our trip. Along the drive to Halong Bay Daisy fills us with lots of useful information. First, what to shout before drinking. I write it down as it sounds to me in English to remember, Mode hi bar. The response to which is Yo!. We practice. I also learn thank you, which sounds like saying come on, but with intonation like you are annoyed. It feels funny every time. What else? It’s Day 2 of Tet. Today it’s traditional to visit your maternal Grandma, then go see a monk, where you shake pencils (or something that loosely translates as), in a bowl and with the one that falls out the monk writes your New Year’s future! More leaning?!! In Vietnam you count the 9 months in Mom’s womb when calculating your age. Dog meat has all but disappeared from Vietnamese cuisine thanks to the younger generation but fake dog meat has become all the rage, and story after story about foreign invaders, death, destruction and starvation. This land has been invaded, fought over, occupied and war torn it’s entire existence. Chinese, French, Japanese, United States. It’s an exhaustive string of horrors. Outside the bus rice fields are interrupted by dusty dilapidated towns. Rundown store fronts advertising coffee, electronics and karaoke are the norm. Glancing beyond, narrow streets don’t stretch far. Trash is plentiful. On mopeds 2, 3 and 4 people balance precariously as they zip down the grimy road sporting surgical masks. From the safe and privileged view out the bus window, the towns appear muted, dull and mucky. The rest is rice.
The bus is also where I meet Ash & Sip. “Same food for you, or are you normal?” was the first point of connection. Daisy innocently checking our dietary restrictions for the boat searched for words and came up with that phrase. See, Sip is a vegetarian, (whom Dasiy asked first) and Ash is not. We burst into hysterics. Sitting adjacent to them on the bus I’m next and proudly proclaim I am a “normal”. For the rest of the trip we makes jokes about Sip’s abnormality. Ash & Sip are British, from Northampton, reminding me we’re just a colony, since my sister lives in Northampton MA. Ash and Sip are of Indian heritage, Ash relates a story from earlier in the day when a local refused to believe he was from England. Brits are white. Ash rocks salt and pepper hair with beard and glasses. He’s quick witted, inquisitive, devil may care and comfortable in his own skin. Sip is thoughtful; she really listens and weights her answers. She projects warmth and strength. We chat for most of the bus ride to Hanoi. When we climb on the boat they claim me as their own when we’re assigned our dining arrangements for the two day excursion. We eat all our meals together, stick together on tours, are the last to retire to our cabins at night, too busy talking and drinking the night away on the top deck. We talk food, drink, Brexit, Trump, guns (every foreign country I go to they want to understand America’s obsession with), family, religion, our dogs, sports, their courtship and more. I am surprisingly affected by the depth and immediacy of the friendship that forms. And funny enough, Ash & Sip are on their honeymoon. They’ve engineered time to take a whole month traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia, which segues into the other hot topic, vacationing.
I am the only American on the Swan Cruise. And the only solo traveler. Couples from England, Italy, Austria, Germany, Sweden and Thailand are my companions. Traveling isn’t just a hot topic between Ash, Sip & I, it’s a general go get to know you for everyone aboard. And this is where, ladies and gentlemen, it sucks to be an American. You want to jump to your feet and puff out your patriotic chest at that remark, be my guest. We suck. The standard amount of vacation days my European counterparts receive is 24. You read that right. That’s the starter amount. “Plus bank holidays?” Ash begins to calculate. “8 more, so 32?”. While some confess you can work those days and receive holiday pay, my Austrian friends are quick to tell add they are required to use every vacation day allocated, powered by the belief people are happier and more productive when they take the proper time to relax. No one can understand that I am in Vietnam for only 1 week. My new friends agree you need two weeks to fully let go. “If you only go away for a week, how can you ever relax?” Ash asks. I tell him the truth, “I don’t”. They have all traveled so much more than me, I am bursting with jealousy. Okay Europe is a cluster of small countries but also I hear about Morocco, India, Korea, Thailand, Brazil, Japan, Australia and more. It’s not just the vacation aspect. I do believe from having experienced so many other cultures, seen so many places, traveled so much of this world, they are fundamentally better positioned to have a broader perspective. To demystify the “other”. To understand all that unites us. I start making a list on my phone of the top places I want to go. As we all swap favorite trip stories I long and so grows the list long.
My cabin on the ship is fantasy come to life. I want to spend six months living in it at sea, not two days. The food on board is outstanding. We eat oysters steamed with onions and herbs, grilled prawns, stuffed crab, fish wrapped in banana leaf, chicken & rice, mystery soup, vermicelli noodles and drinks, drinks and more drinks. I get some wine cause how cold I not? I drink a bottle of the 2017 Concha y Toro Chardonnay (lemon, lime, green pepper, minus acid, light body). I am confused but must note, the majority of wine available in Vietnam is from Argentina and Chile. Huh? Mostly aboard the Swan Cruise we sit on the top deck and marvel at the site of Halong Bay. No matter how many times I put my phone away, I reach for it again, to try in vain to capture a new breathtaking view. Everyone is wide eyed. “Can you believe?” heard again and again. The day is overcast, contributing to the otherworldly effect.
When it’s time to head out in kayaks, I try to play the good samaritan. The Swedish couple is in their 80’s. The wife wanted to go for a swim on the beach but neither believes they can rock a kayak. So I find Daisy and make the argument that since I am alone, I can ferry the older woman. I’m surprised to see hurt in Daisy’s eyes. “I thought since you’re alone, we’d go together”. Daisy instructs our group to have whoever is stronger sit at the back of the kayak. When it’s our turn she sizes me up, “I think I better sit in back”, beat, infectious smile and laughter. She hops in the front of the kayak. She doesn’t even take a paddle. “You’ve got this” she encourages and points where to go. Paddling close by the these limestone islands jutting to the sky is even more surreal. And we’re finally back at the beginning. Our kayak pulls up on the beach. First. Some basic exploration of the island sends my imagination and sense of wonder into overdrive. Not many people are swimming but I do. I swim out far and float in the tranquil rocking of the water. I dream of dragons and fabled creatures. I try to let go, lost in the moment, stretching time.
It’s my birthday. Friends Joy and Tommy have colluded to spirit me off to some unknown destination for a celebratory dinner. Or my death. I mean, surprise birthday dinner was the pitch. “We’re taking you out for your birthday, it’s a surprise where!” the initial invite. But now that we three are in a car driving all the conversation revolves around my impending murder. A Carl’s Jr. may be involved? There is a brief reprieve, when talking about future blog posts I am planning I ask if anyone is interested in visiting Eataly with me, (an Italian style market and restaurant depot in Century City as well as other cities). Joy gets stuck wondering why i am pronouncing Italy so strange. This sends her into hysterics. I fear we’ve lost her for good when she finally stops madly giggling and we return to discussing my imminent demise. When it becomes clear we are headed towards the water, drowning is hot topic. At one point the car ride is taken over by a fact finding mission of how chloroform actually works. Tommy reads off his phone from the back seat. Turns out it doesn’t perform like in the movies. The rag they have no doubt soaked in it to hold over my mouth and nose would have lost it’s potency with the prolonged oxygen exposure. And, in fact, even direct application wouldn’t knock me out for up to 5 minutes. Not the instant success promised by Hollywood. Add it to the list. Fear not kind reader, Tommy and Joy seem in no way deterred from their task. It may just require a little more muscle, but with plenty of can do American spirit, they are still confident in their mission. I know about where I am when we turn onto Admiralty Way in Marina Del Rey. I’ve taken a boat trip and rode jet skis off these docks. And, it probably would be a good spot to dump someone into the water. Huh. As we arrive at our destination, it sounds murderous for sure. We pull into the parking lot at Killer Shrimp.
Killer Shrimp has been in operation for over 20 years and best known for serving one signature dish. Take a guess? Once with multiple locations, it’s now down to one, a perfect, picturesque spot overlooking a marina in Marina Del Rey. Joy has mentioned the restaurant several times. A standout for her, introduced to by friend Kim, (Joy collects Kims), back when a now closed location lived in North Hollywood. She thoughtfully selected the spot since I am observing Lent (raise your hand if you saw that one coming) and so am not eating meat on Fridays. The joint is jumping and in we go.
It’s a 30 minute wait for a table so we take up residence at the bar. The wine list is painfully generic. A handful of mass produced name brands show no imagination or care. In fairness, the signature dish here has some real spice to it and spicy is notoriously
hard to pair with wine. It dulls the fruitiness and body while heightening the acidity and bitterness. Think about classically spicy cuisines and ask yourself if they produce wine there. Mexico? Thailand? Sweet is your best option, so try a Riesling with your next Thai meal if you are so inclined. For tonight I will abandon my wine lust. We all try a specialty mixed cocktail. I start off with a rum based, passionfruit, tiki style drink that claims to be an original Marina Del Rey concoction. I failed to write down the name or ingredients and the online drinks menu is outdated. It was a perfectly jovial beverage to start the night on. I do remember Tommy got a “Black Tea Collins” cause I thought to myself they somehow found a way to make a Collins even more British. In less than thirty minutes, we’re being seated with a view of the water.
We order Lobster Mac & Cheese and Fried Calamari to start things off. I’ve moved onto beer, Sam Adams, cause I’m a patriot. Also, when I ran the Big Sur Marathon Sam Adams sponsored the event and so at the finish line I received a free beer. It was the single greatest beer I ever drank. Since then I always order Sam Adams when available because
I’m now programmed. Back at the appetizers, the calamari breading is rather tasty but mostly the two are fine but uninspired. But please take your seats; the star of the show is about to arrive. Keeping it simple and what they are famous for, I ordered the Killer Shrimp “Original”, springing the extra $2 dollars for the shelled shrimp; a worthwhile expense I’d say. And fuck it, I’m being treated and they’re killing me later. You only live for a few more hours once. Tommy does the same as me, Joy gets her shrimp with a lobster tail included. The shrimp rests in a large bowl of intensely flavorful, spicy broth. A basket of bread is placed in the center of the table for use soaking up the liquid. The shrimp plus broth are a bomb of flavor; robust, fiery and savory. We take guesses about what ingredients might populate the dish. Pepper, chili pepper, butter, salt, rosemary and paprika are among the contestants. Either way it’s really delicious. I’m not a spicy guy thanks to Mom and genetics it can just upset my tummy. Plus in my opinion watery eyes and a runny nose is never a good look at a dinner table even if it is from heat and not sickness. The Killer Shrimp walks up to the line but doesn’t cross it. I gobble up all my shrimp, several pieces of soaked french bread and more. A great meal concludes when the waitress brings an Ice Cream Sunday with a candle burning. Singing follows. I forget what song it was. We loiter a bit after and I stare longingly at the fish tank. In the days before Harlow (the dark ages), I had a fish tank. We take in the marina on this beautiful night; even snap a photo or two. Then, I am falling. The water is freezing but I am more immediately concerned about the cinder block attached to my bound wrists that’s making a beeline for the bottom of the sea!
It would be quite the twist if this blog post was from the grave. Spooky! But showing considerable restraint, Joy and Tommy do no murder on this night. So, no death. Sorry guys. But one friend from New York did text me, “happy closer to death day”. I remember birthdays playing to a different tune when I was younger. Solidly in my forties.