Some time ago, I visited this wonderful street with murals that forms the backdrop for the Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi The street has numerous wonderful painted and detailed murals on life in Vietnam. Contrary to most other places there is no graffiti or paint marring their beauty. One can walk the entire street, see Vietnamese people also doing the same and end at a coffee shop or Bia Hoi across the street enjoying. So without further words, here is a photo walk on a day spent on Mural Street almost at the Old Quarter in Hanoi Vietnam.
Walking the street
Welcome to the street. Mural street.
All of this on a single expression of art and beauty.
I particularly loved the scenes of real life and the murals. I made up captions for each photo.
I fantasized about the young man missing the girl as she left. He felt lost as she wandered away. Perhaps finding no words to bring her back.
Or perhaps the dog barking at the girls or disturbed in slumbers by the loud motorbikes pulling up.
The young woman sitting just out of reach on the street.
Wonderful shopping on Hang Ma street. See the masks? The young girl holding her mom’s hand.
Finally the artist creating his wonderful calligraphy while the impatient motorbikes gather in front.
Mural Street is just north of the Old Quarter in Hanoi. It is a wonderful place to stop and have a stroll, see the beautiful mural artistry and paintings, and maybe stop for a coffee and just watch the people. I really enjoyed the blending of fact and fiction, the beautiful and detailed paintings, and the many benches to sit and observe.
A little information on how I became so taken with parts of the world. I wrote this awhile ago but it never has seen publishing. I’ve read it over a few times over the last year and originally it was meant to be an introduction to my stories but now I think it stands on alone as a reason and season to go.
It happened early on even before retiring. I lived and worked in Singapore and India for some years. I would travel in other years to Japan for work and play. In 2009 I went to Hanoi for a week. I have pictures from that trip but it was all business so I don’t really recall much besides a day tour we took to the Old Quarter. The genesis of the name seemed to come over time to me. Living in Cambodia or traveling through Laos or Malaysia or wandering Vietnam. It seemed all of these places were perched on something between here and there to me. Not precariously perched mind you. Occupying this wonderful, sensual, sexy place.
The Edge is occupied by people and places and it has grown and shriveled and shrank and become different. It has more become The Place. Some places are not the Edge. I never thought of Hong Kong as the Edge. While other places it was sublime like Kampot Cambodia or the wonderful beach at Otres Village the power would go out and my Khmer neighbor and I would move to the porch and drink cold beer and talk. Of course it was hot. But in the Edge the beer is cold and the people are warm and the times. Oh my gosh! The times are not real. There are no times there. It is a blending of moments. Some last so shortly and bleed into the next. Others seem to last years like living during Pandemic times in Vietnam. In Vietnam the Edge neatly covers the entire country.
Perhaps another component is not being finished. The Edge has places and people not finished. We can go and watch the people and places building but never finishing. That’s probably why places like the US and Canada can never be in The Edge. They are kinda done. Finished. The randomness is gone. Instead there are politics and hatred and divisiveness. I could not live for long without an Edge.
It gives me this sensation of belonging to an unfinished thing. Sitting once in Saigon I watched the people in the park. Vietnamese people singing, dancing, doing yoga and Tai Chi. Young people playing badminton. Then a person would show up with a Saigon Special beer. Life would generate randomness and it would go off in a million directions. Follow any and find a new reality.
I walked down this alley and found a small bar and restaurant selling draft Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. I sat and thrilled at the idea of drinking a cold PBR draft in Vietnam for some reason. Oh… I know. It is The Edge. So many places that all combine to form the Edge to me. Sights and sounds and things that all make me happier to be on the Edge than outside staring in.
Where something is possible and will happen at a moment’s notice. The Edge then grew for me into this world view. When I left it was uncomfortable and I regretted it. But I soon realized this Edge extended the shadowy boundaries far beyond my mortal ken. There is Puerto Vallarta and it lives on the Edge. The cobblestone streets and the taco stands and my airbnb host telling me,
Its Puerto Vallarta Mike. We live for tacos, beer, and wine
Now that sounds like The Edge to me.
Merida Mexico is so easily placed on the Edge too. It is never done this big city of lights, food, and wonderful friendly people. Living here for 9 months has let me find so much that has enriched my life, sometimes made me laugh or take more photos, but most of all just go and be.
We all have our own Edge(s)
Yep. I also realized that we all do. The place and people where life bleeds together and we can wander and wonder and perhaps find or get lost. For me, it was the comfort of a Hanoi Coffee shop or walking the Han River at sunset in Da Nang. Perhaps going to Can Tho town to see Ly. Ly would meet me on her motorbike and we’d go. Tour the Edge. She was my guide, friend, mystic, and sage. My beautiful one. Then she would smile and her eyes would light up and the smile broke across the world I could see in Can Tho.
Other places too became these places. Truly it is My Edge. I think everyone must find their own and have the places that create value or none, make it worthwhile to return or not but mostly just be. I could always be just this old retired guy in The Edge.
Sorry though. Your Edge is not mine. You cannot borrow mine. It is like a secret book or diary. Mine balances on the head of a pin sitting with AV in Phnom Penh drinking cold beer and eating seafood. Yours may be the wonders of London or Paris. For me, The Edge is unfinished, random, with people and places I let in. Yours will be so different.
I do think we all must find the boundary between our mainstream and Edge and then decide if we will cross it. Beware if you do. You may find people, places, and things you never imagined. Some will hurt you. Some will love you. Some may do both. But once you have it, no other place seems fit to live in.
It truly is a place each of us finds but I also feel sorry for the others who never find the excitement or thrill and plod along in some undeserved reality in some McDonalds playing retirement cribbage with their lives. So much more out there to go find. I told one friend it is not being brave or cowardly. It is wanting…
Here’s the continuation of the Amtrak voyages. Part 1 can be found right here.
Welcome to part 2 of the story. I already covered how I went east and the people mostly I met and some on the places. Here is my return trip on the Southwest Chief route. Starting with beautiful Chicago I would work my way back to the west with stops along the way, some day or weekend trips, but mostly the people I met along the way. The Southwest Chief cuts across the deserts and plains and I ended up in Los Angeles. Here’s the train route for you. I rode this entire train route too. The photo album for my Amtrak travels is here.
Chicago to Albuquerque
Because of the distance or perhaps because I am a wimp, I decided to not use the RailPass and bought a sleeper for the 20 some hours to Albuquerque. I then spent about a week in Albuquerque and went on a few side trips. Albuquerque was a fun city to spend a week and days in. I found it had so much to offer but my airbnb was located a little away from the downtown areas. I did explore downtown a few times. Found good restaurants, museums, and wonderful historic city blocks I loved to walk down.
Summing up Albuquerque was just the going and seeing this large and spread out city. I had been numerous time in the past but did not remember it too well. The people are kind, restaurants were fun, and I found a nice brewpub down the street from where I liked to enjoy an evening. I would also do two trips which I give you below. My photo album from the city is here.
Santa Fe Day Trip
My first side trip was a train ride and day trip from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. The Rail Runner train takes a few hours and is a wonderful ride. Here’s the route for the Rail Runner train.
Fun ride to take and easy to do.
Santa Fe is a historic and beautiful city to wander around especially old town. I’d been to Santa Fe a number of times in some past darkly lit life but I recalled little of it.
I spent the day eating food with red chili on it, stopped for a coffee, wandered around and took photos. My photo album of a day spent in Santa Fe is here.
A weekend spent in Las Vegas (New Mexico)
I would use two more segments of the RailPass to go from Albuquerque to Las Vegas over a weekend. It takes a few hours on the Southwest Chief to do the trip.
I arrived in Las Vegas in the evening and walked up to the hotel. I had stopped and eaten dinner at this restaurant and reached the hotel just as it started raining. Deciding I needed a few beers for the room, I walked to the gas station nearby. Joining me were two New Mexican women. Very flirtatious sorts they asked me,
what is a good looking boy like you doing out?
They both laughed. We went to the gas station talking and bought beer. They smiled and told me Adios and I went to the room. After the few beers, the night evolved to some YouTube videos and just this incomparable feeling of this one town in a place I had never been before, will never go again, and now only for one night.
Raoul, retired truck driver. Las Vegas, NM.
The next day I decided to go see the historic part of the town but first I stopped for breakfast at the same restaurant. It was very busy and all the tables were full of tourists and locals. I was standing at the door and this older man introduced himself and asked if I would care to join him. And I met Raoul that way.
Raoul and I seemed to just hit it off from the first cup of coffee. We talked life and he told me his story of being a truck driver across the western United States for 40 years. Driving, talking on a CB radio, finding small truck stops to eat at. His 40 years went by and he found he could no longer work at his age and he hated driving even to Tucumcari where his girl friend lived.
We talked about the going and stopping. The times he had no home and slept in the truck. I asked him about his friends and he told me about a person named Chuck who he had known for decades. They never really met but engaged with talk, family, and life on the radio.
Finally as we finished the breakfast of eggs with a lot of red chili and tortillas, he let me know he must leave to drive to Tucumcari. I paid for breakfast and felt I got the better part of that deal. Raoul shook my hand warmly and thanked me and left.
I ended up walking back to the Amtrak station but stopped downtown to see the city. It turned out this city was troubled with a few social problems but it seems drug use had always been prominent. The young people I think with nothing to find, escaped instead.
I left the city without seeing the little historic district but I did take some photos. I think I found some living history that was far more interesting and valuable. I did wander a little in the city and here is that album.
Albuquerque to Flagstaff
I was at the tail end of the 2021 train journeys now. I used the 8th rail pass segment to ride to Flagstaff. The train was delayed so I got in rather late to Flagstaff and then checked out of the hotel after breakfast down the street. I ended up getting a hotel room for the day downtown so I could rest and wander around. I spent the day downtown based on the suggestion of my wonderful Uber driver and just kind of hung around, drank some beer, and bought a hat which I have lost since then.
Flagstaff was interesting but I doubt I will ever go back. I really liked the downtown part but that was all I saw. Here’s the photo album from that day.
Finally Flagstaff to Los Angeles
The train ride from Flagstaff cut through these wonderful desert places I had worked and lived in so long ago. Memories of city names and the wonderful and lonely desert landscapes kept me in some wanderlust yet sad state. I had practiced archeology across so many of the names. It really stirred up the thoughts going way back and I was glad to not be spending more time in any of the places. They cut too close to the past for me in some cases. I ended up getting a sleeper car because of the distance and my desire to just be alone for the final part of the trip.
Finishing it all
I had used 8 of the 10 segments on Amtrak on the USA RailPass which gave me 10 segments over 30 days. I felt I did pretty well. I told this Amtrak employee what I did and we both felt that the California Zephyr going east was the route to do. I am so glad to have done both routes and to have gotten the RailPass. Well worth the cost and easy to use.
From Los Angeles I would then fly to Austin Texas and then on to Mexico. I ended up living in Mexico for a year except for a visa run to Houston Texas which I won’t be writing about. Very depressing and angry place.
Here are some Amtrak train travels in the United States in 2021. Part 1 is going east on the California Zephyr train. Part 2 is going west. I decided to do the story in two parts.
Rather than tell the story of the places, this is about a few people that made up the places. Hope you enjoy! All of the wandering was captured in a photo gallery. I spent 30 days going east and west. The Amtrak travels can be found in the photo gallery here but each post has a highlight or two or whatever from each journey. Hope you enjoy.
When I started wondering about this part of the voyage, I looked at the California Zephyr Amtrak map and just for fun here it is.
I decided I wanted to go east all the way to the end. That would be Emeryville California to Chicago. The trip east was through some of the most beautiful country the US could offer.
But I wanted stops along the way. Segments. So the voyage became this.
Emeryville to Reno. Reno was rather interesting but rather disturbing. I had been to the biggest little city so many times but this time it seemed like it all had changed. The city lights and the people that used walk the streets were replaced by other less fortunate people. I did not seen anyone out day or night walking. The casinos were little prisons where all the guests just stayed inside all the time. Ate, gambled, perhaps had sex, got drunk. Maybe in that order. I stayed a few days but was so very glad to leave. My Reno photo album is here.
Reno to Salt Lake City . Salt Lake City was a beautiful city to me. Old buildings, wide city streets but it seems like everyone loves beer there. From the mornings most days, I saw coolers out and liquor stores being visited. I had lunch with an old friend from the .com days that lives outside SLC at this nice brewpub. We spent a lot of time talking about the city, about the people we worked with then and about how lives had changed. I spent three days in SLC and really enjoyed just walking the city. I also had one of the nicest hotels there. They let me check in at 5am, got me some breakfast, and then took me to Amtrak at 3am in the morning. Nice people. That album can be found about right here.
Salt Lake City to Denver. Denver was interesting and I loved the downtown mall area and the historic parks. This city seemed to suffer the same homeless problem as Reno though. I only went to upper scale neighborhoods at night like the downtown mall. My Denver photos are here.
Denver to Omaha. I really liked Omaha for three days but I don’t think I could stay longer. I disliked the focus on the pandemic being over and masks were optional. Kinda reminded me in retrospect of Houston Texas. On the flip side, the city had some fun bars and restaurants. Here is the album from there.
Omaha to Chicago. Finally Chicago! This was different for me. I stayed a week in Chicago and of course it was in uptown in Little Vietnam. Seemed legit. When I got there, the cabbie had told me all about uptown and the area I was in. I stopped at a little Vietnamese restaurant and got a ca phe sua da. Sat there and wondered just how in the world I could leave Vietnam, travel thousands of miles and just arrive for a Vietnamese coffee. Chicago though! What a beautiful city to wander in. I walked the Lake Michigan area a few times, went to the Field Museum. That museum! If you go, I think two days are needed. What a beautiful property. Then there’s the food. I had some fun times drinking and eating in the city and riding the transit system all around. My photos for Chicago are here.
The focus here though is on what follows really. I loved the eastern route I took. From beginning to end. It’s worth noting that I also went west from Chicago to Los Angeles but that’s part 2 of this story.
The People make the places
The real impact of this wonderful vagabonding around were some people I managed to meet. Going east I have some people to share with you. From Salt Lake City to Denver I would sit alone most of the time but somewhere along the route a person sat next to me. This is his story. Slightly fictional and a mashup perhaps. So sit back and enjoy.
Red Ambrose. American cowboy.
Red was the one of the last of this breed. An American man of the west. Hunting in the Rockies, breaking ponies, wandering trails from Wyoming to Arizona. He was larger than life so his story is. He could have said,
guns don’t lie. People do.
At another turn he might have also noted,
only good thing about people is when they know when to stay and when to go
I’m pretty sure though as he told the stories and listened to mine, I asked him what he liked in his life. With the larger than life laugh and boisterous yet shy persona he answered.
I like sunsets in the Rockies, breaking a pony, hunting, and a pretty woman.
Yeah. I’m pretty sure Red said that.
Red was a mashup of the west. So big and beautiful and colorful with fierce blue eyes that crinkled at the sides. A red beard perhaps his namesake, and a loud laugh that rolled across the train aisle. He was also quiet and philosophical and warm at times. His family loved and hated him. Held him at arms length. He may have told me to hold my daughter closer than that.
Red and I parted company in Denver. The last I saw of him he was walking that angular walk and both laughing and talking at his phone in that boisterous and wonderful voice. He marked my world. I knew I would write about him.
Adios Red. Our trails may never cross again but you touched my soul.
Teri. Retired school teacher.
I would get on the train next in Denver and ride to Omaha. I decided to sit in the observation car which was not crowded at all. I sat for awhile taking photos and just thinking of how life mirrored the whistle stops of the train perhaps. My life sure seemed to find places to just go. A few seats away was a woman sitting by herself. We got to talking so she moved closer. She had keen blue eyes and beautiful long blonde hair. Perhaps in her early 60s. She had spent years teaching in elementary schools and then covid came along. The entire fabric of the school fell apart with online teaching. Suddenly the impact of teacher and student was no longer there. She was estranged from her charges and social impact. Many things though she blamed on our then president. She believed that Trump was a national disgrace and did more to damage the country pandemic or not.
Teri had an easy laugh and I think she felt sitting in the observation car with a stranger it was okay to simply talk about her life with more abandon than a close family member or friend. She told me about teaching and the kids and the school as it closed down. She was sent home too. Instead of everyone rallying to beat the pandemic she found some that were refusing or politicizing it. Masks became political statements. Science become a victim. She was distressed and asked about life in Vietnam at the time so we talked about that.
I think Teri must have been a compassionate but demanding teaching in her times. I felt she had this clear moral sense and compass. Soon though her stop came up before Omaha and I saw her leave the train after I left the observation car. She had this purposeful walk and a focus to her life which I found very appealing. She was also a beautiful woman and I liked that too. Just speaking the truth here.
Ending the people in the places
So this ended my going east on the train. Stories of people over places but we are not done yet. There are more of both to come. I will go west next and visit Albuquerque for a week. Do some other things and end up in Los Angeles. But that is part 2. All taken with my iPhone 12 Pro either along the route of the train or in the places I visited. I don’t have much need of anything else.
I’ve added part 2 of the voyage. You can find it here. This is going west from Chicago on the Southwest Chief.
Sometimes in this never ending saga, directions get fubar. One way is pretty much as good as another. Then direction really does not apply as much as the Going. This next part tells a few stories about the Going. So we will get going. The stories do not run one after the other. They are just little snippets of a life spent wandering in 2019 and 2020 early on.
Once upon a time there was Laos. I went to Laos on no real mission at all besides to spend a month going. I flew from somewhere to Vientiane and then on to Luang Prabang. This is not really a travel log but more like an experience. Laos was not just another country to add to my bevy of places. It was a piece of things to experience. I wanted to go because I wanted to go. So I went. First up was the getting there. I don’t quite recall where I flew from but I guess I could go look but the from and to are not so important as the going. I found Vientiane or it found me and I also found friendly faces, wonderful French bakeries and little restaurants dotting the side streets and alleys by my Hotel. Burgers and noodles and sandwiches and BeerLao. Often getting back to the hotel I discovered I had no bottle opener so the kindly front desk clerk would find one and I would sit on the stairs of the hotel drinking. Other people Laotian and tourists wandered by and nodded. Tuktuk drivers smiled. I was in my element. Sitting on the street drinking. I also found one of my favorite bakeries so would go back for the food I had grown fond of in Hanoi. It was all there and the wonderful coffee. Over about 9 days I guess I wandered the city. I found malls and small markets, Wats. Vientiane seemed rather laid back to me and almost sleepy at times. I did not mind because often I would end up at an ice cream parlor by the palace eating. No hurry to find something ever. The pace of Vientiane seemed just right for the moments I had there.
Slowly the lights would turn down though and evening had come. The hotel got busy as more guests showed up or left. I would just sit and watch. I am guessing the hotel staff got used to me and one young woman would practice English on me I think. I invited her to sit on the stairs out front but she was all dressed up for working and she thought her manager would not be so kindly taken with spending time drinking BeerLao with an American. But she was tempted I think.
After some days with this itinerant wandering I had to fly to Luang Prabang. Now this was a city and a mentality and a place to party, eat, see things like waterfalls. I would spend 10 more days there. The days were spent just walking all around and repeating and mixing and going backwards and seeing the Mekong River and whatever else. In the evenings the night market fired up so I would go sometimes to look. I really loved the night market as it spread across the city streets and everyone took time to look, shop, bargain. Down the street was this wonderful burger place that served up buffalo burgers. I could sit and watch the market happenings and eat. My hotel was down this wonderful side street so beautiful and unique. I loved the arriving and departing.
One of the days I took a day tour down the river. This was idyllic floating along and seeing the land and river scapes and stopping at places like Kwangsi Falls. Then swimming in emerald green waters after sweating the day away. Of course there was beer there and food too.
I would have to say this was rather dreamy and the days whittled down to me having to leave again. My wonderful stay in Luang Prabang Laos has more photos. Check them out here.
It was an interesting thing that I flew back to Vientiane and stayed one night at this hotel and the front desk clerk was Vietnamese. We ended up visiting most of the morning and then I would fly back to somewhere else. Maybe it was Vietnam. I seem to remember it was somewhere.
Malaysia Christmas 2019
Kuala Lumpur has always been this escape valve for me. I decided to leave Manila Philippines and go to Kuala Lumpur for Christmas. I could go and find nothing but always feel life had given me more. KL at Christmas time. Santa Claus in the mall. Christmas songs down the streets. Lights strung up. I spent about 10 days there and felt this awakening from the lesser conditions I felt in Manila. Like arriving there at the KLIA was an awakening and I could hop the express train to KL Sentral Station and my hotel across the street. And the little beer bar I would go back to for draft beers. Then there was the wandering in all directions. After all this part of the story does focus on directions. Leaving the hotel I would just go. Was there a thing to find? No. A beautiful building or historic property? No. It was just the city that always astounded me. This warm, sometimes brooding, mystical city with all the wonderful cultures together. The food that appeared on street corners delighting the mornings. Next door to my hotel, the food court serving up wonderful Chinese concoctions of spicy noodles. The place down the street with the delicious bbq pork ribs with rice and tall Tiger beer bottles. So much to occupy my directions! And it was Christmas time too.
For two weeks just about I wandered KL yet again. City streets became my streets, Moods became colors. Lights shone down in the evenings from the wonderful sky scrapers and the mosque. What a wonderful, sensuous city to call mine. It seemed to check off all the elements and conditions of going west or south or whatever.
KL was an escape for me in Christmas 2019. I had visited Taiwan for months before and spent some time in Philippines. I left there early and visited Malaysia.
Saigon after Malaysia 2020
So after Malaysia for whatever reason I ended up in Saigon. I was supposed to fly back to Manila and then catch this flight to Narita but Philippines had a volcano so instead I changed things. Anyways, I had 10 days in Saigon to do just about what I always did. I wandered around, ate and drank, and always found stuff that was completely different than the last time I was there which must have been after Taiwan. Confusing? Yeah. Well, Taiwan is another story yet but it is longer so I’ll publish my months there later.
I vaguely remember wandering around District 1 in Saigon and seeing my friend Nhanh that I mentioned before. We went out to eat a few times, went to a movie, took a few walks, drank more than enough coffee in various and sundry coffee shops and talked. I think we also went on an evening cruise on the Saigon River while I was there.
A few nights I ended up at the Corner Cafe. This little bar which was… On a corner. Duh. They served iced cold Tiger Beer so I would go sit and wait for the waiter to ask,
I would order more and tip him a little and then he came around more often and I drank more often.
I could sit and watch Saigon just go crazy like it always did. If you have never been, Saigon just seems to have this penchant to go nuts on the streets with thousands of conversations between motorbikes and cars and trucks and taxis. You can guess who wins the arguments. The police kind of benevolently watch while the lights change but no one notices. Traffic lights it seems are suggestions only just like Walk signs.
After 2 weeks or so, I left Saigon and Vietnam and I’d be gone to visit my daughter in the US which also is when I rode Amtrak across the US. More stories though. Plenty of space on this server to tell all those.
Learning from your little stories
I think since I quoted Winnie the Pooh earlier, there are key learning points from those stories about how to find, look, dream. I once thought of what possible Winnie the Pooh character I was and I came up with Eeyore. It seemed to be just the mix of feelings and moods sometimes. Morose, sometimes negative. Often looking for a thing behind myself. I knew I could not be Tigger or Piglet. Not wise enough to be the owl. But figuring out what character was a small thing compared to learning from the stories.
Does it make sense to find something when one is not looking? Uh oh. Another Pooh Bear moment I fear.
This little sampling of stories was a lot of fun to derive and write on. Each one was separate if you use time to measure but they all came together in this post because it seemed like they belonged somehow.
I mentioned previously how my desire to write a gently fictional account came to be. The desire was to create an account. A story. Maybe a book. It was always to be a periodic and episodic thing. Not at all aligned with time since I hate time and seriously doubt how real it is. Instead the account is a series of memories. Moments. Experiences. Some of these are real. Some are mashups of what was and might have been. This leaves open your own vagabonding. No accounts settled. No verdicts assumed. I wanted to get that out of the way. As you read you will not see many mentions of time or year. I don’t deal in those. I’ll leave it to you to decide what’s real. I will also include a quote every so often I feel is particularly relatable. Today it is from Edward Abbey.
I must confess that I know nothing whatsoever about true underlying reality, never having met any.
Source: Edward Abbey
So let’s go.
I left the United States on March 1st. My last day of work after 20 years plus in IT was the day before. I would find myself on an airplane leaving San Francisco for Tokyo Japan. As I looked out the window it was as if a giant weight had been lifted. Flying to Japan. Going to find my new moments. It seemed almost counter intuitive or fictional but there I was. In the air. Flying to Narita. What was left behind were those times. Times of divorce and meaningless jobs. Now I was at 35k feet crossing the vast Pacific Ocean again.
Was I amazed? Shocked? Bewildered? Perhaps. I remember thinking,
happening! It’s fucking happening.
Tokyo would be my first adventure. I would spend almost a week walking, riding the metropolitan subway, finding places so many times before I had been. Eating, drinking. Walking miles a day. Taking photos.
Tokyo – my first city of dreams
It took hours to fly to Tokyo from San Francisco but I got in to Narita early evening and took the express train to Shinjuku Station. Not the subway station though which threw me for a moment. It was the train station. I found my way though to the subway down the block and made my way to my hotel. The room smelled of cigarettes until I just left the windows open all day long even though Tokyo in March! Cold! Each day I would start out with getting a coffee down the street at this convenience store. The walk though short took me back to Japan each morning and let me see the wonderful stores, people, and mornings Tokyo was blessed with. Cold and crisp. Jeans and jacket weather.
I still felt a little unreal or at least still had the feeling doubting it had really happened. Until I found a Starbucks coffee shop one morning with my kindle. I sat there and realized with almost a start,
I have no place to be and nothing to get done. Forever!
At that point the beginning became the beginning if that makes sense. I knew I had no home. No place where I would return at the end of the day besides my slightly smelling hotel room.
So what did I see? Tokyo is an immense city and wandering it on foot is a great adventure. There are mighty towers and small parks and side streets which always lit my mind and soul.Small noodle shops and fast food and everything else. Each day though I would start with coffee either provided by the hotel or the convenience store. I also remembered the last time I had been in Tokyo was in 2011 but I really did not stop. I just got the next bullet train to Kyoto. Those were not the good days for me. No wandering city streets in Tokyo like I so dearly loved to do then.
Now it was so different. Time had ceased to exist each day and it was one step after another. I am a walker and have been for decades. Walking Tokyo meant finding my way yet again to the small and big places I would find. I also rode the Metropolitan subway and made my way back to the Lion Beer Hall in the Ginza. A place I have been numerous times for food and beer.
Mostly this beginning was about beginnings though. Changes and rebirths perhaps of body, mind and soul. Finding I needed no pattern, no todo lists, no events to plan any longer. Now I had this immeasurable thing. Moments. I would carve up moments and place those that past into memories and experiences and do it all with a camera and writing.
Did Tokyo treat me well? Yes. From the Starbucks where I got a glimpse of the no plan, no event, no timeline, no schedule and finding a measure of acceptance and relief where before I could not believe it was happening. Perhaps this was a foundation for my years to come tramping around where I wished.
As I wandered Tokyo for my days there the gentle acceptance and desire grew. From a book on a kindle to an alley completely lost I found people. The old man taking trash out and shaking his hand at me with an English good morning. To school kids waving and walking a bit with me. Asking my name. Where I was going. Where I was from. Like a dream turned and I would gently say good morning in Japanese and they’d laugh and skip away. Them to school. Me wandering a side street.
On all of my days wandering in Tokyo, I would start down any street but soon I ended up riding the subway. I wanted to visit a few old haunts like Ginza, Akihabara, and Shinjuku. One day I spent wandering by the Imperial Palace and then the wonderful government buildings. Beautiful but cold days.
Another day I ended up at the Lion Beer Hall. A wonderful German themed beer garden with music, lots of people eating and drinking. And a buzz of conversation which seemed to clamor for a place among the music.
Wandering the streets of the Ginza took me back so many times to other days I would spend on a weekend when the street closed and everyone came out in their finest. I have a faint memory of seeing the Ginza at Christmas time a long while ago with wonderful signs wishing good holidays and the young out shopping and wishing in store windows.
Perhaps a final place had to be Akihabara where the electronics and porn shops live. Strange combination but true. Also the pachinko palaces emit a constant vibration of bells and whistles and effusive cigarette smoke. There are small stands that at one time my friend Arthur and I visited on our way to the highlight of the day which was Yodabashi Camera. So many floors of stuff. This time was no different. Entering the shop, I was amazed at just the numbers and was greeted both in Japanese and English and asked what I wanted. I told one person,
Only to dream
Tokyo was a dream though. Like a wonderful tapestry of sound, people, urban moments of both jungle and peace. Small parks with shrines. Old and new living on the same block. Wonderful national parks to visit.
Soon though, Tokyo would end and I would catch the Shinkansen Bullet train to a city I had never been. I was on the way to Hiroshima. At the end of times, I always ask myself after a place,
would I come back? What did I gain?
The answer for Tokyo is I would always go back. As for the gain. Nothing comes to mind. I had ceased wanting to gain. Or a milestone. I just did to do. I just was.
From Tokyo to Hiroshima I would go. As I rode the Shinkansen, I met a few Japanese business travelers. The bullet train is an elegant ride. I had bought all the train tickets prior to leaving the US so I felt prepared except for the huge Tokyo Station. I had to get help from a friendly attendant that walked me to the departure area. She told me I was not the first to ask for help. Even Japanese people from outside Tokyo got lost in the station. Finally though, I arrived at the departure gate and was able to watch my train arrive. Signs for all systems are in English so it was easy to be ready but the train is just beautiful! Shaped like a rocket or something. Riding in the train at speeds almost 200mph seemed surreal.
I don’t count hours but it seemed before I was ready we had reached Hiroshima. My hotel there was close to the train station so I could walk. A work colleague had told me that Hiroshima was boring so I had no real expectations. Suffice to say he was wrong like he was in many things. Hiroshima is a vibrant, fun, and sometimes funky city with its memories also of the atomic bomb being a separate part of life there. I believe the city places both in their context. So I will cover my visit writing about both.
Hiroshima fun and frolic
I left the hotel like most mornings and the cute front desk clerk wished me good morning. She was there each morning and truly made my day look better. I’ll not lie. I appreciate beautiful women. So sue me. Walking for coffee was always easy and finding both coffee and a place to sit often combined a 7/11 store and park. There the older folks like me came to see their day. I would hear numerous “ohayo” greetings and would find a spot. Others would show up. Young and old. So slowly I’d drink the morning coffee and watch Hiroshima on the rise. Far from some somber city this place had a pace of life. Whether young or old parks were there to be enjoyed.
The park is a generalized and fictional construct for me though. It’s like
Just a place like all places. Grass and trees. Young voices and old. To sit and embrace every park was accepting all parks.
Serious sides of Hiroshima
I mentioned the two sides of Hiroshima. There is the shopping and eating and socializing side and then there is the somber and almost sad side. A bomb fell here once but the results while still noticeable don’t impact the social side I can see.
I watched people then enjoying life on one side and on the other silently observing. Perhaps it is a Japanese thing. The ability to sequester things. The somber part leaves one with sadness but all one does is cross the street just about and a wonderful shopping center can be found.
As I walked Hiroshima, it became every person’s city to me. The people were all people. The fantasies and dreams were all dreams. I loved the time seeing it all in Hiroshima. For days I would stay and just walk. I found and lost myself on the city streets of Hiroshima. I think where I reached the belief in a Starbucks in Tokyo, in Hiroshima I found the day to day. Just the going of it. Camera in hand. Finding and losing myself. I think it did become any city to me. And I was a citizen of any city. The parks and shopping centers and little side streets with wonderful nighttime signs shining out like they do in Japan.
Finally, thank you Hiroshima for letting me find and lose myself in your depths. You were my second city in Japan and you fulfilled me yet left me wanting more. The old gentleman on the street nodding his morning, the beautiful sights to be only estimated.
Hiroshima photo gallery can be found here. Go indulge.
There is no going back in Going West. One never returns. I’ve maintained the moment you turn your heard everything changes. I was about to change again for the last time in Japan. On to Osaka. The city that is so much more than the sum of its parts.
Osaka by Shinkansen – Shorter but sweet
After my days in Hiroshima, time to go again. I boarded the Shinkansen this time for a shorter ride to Osaka. I had never been there either so with 5 or 6 days, I wanted to not see the entire city but only to see the part that opened itself to me. Streets and parks and bridges. Osaka is a city of bridges and I simply love bridges. They are all photographic statements of geometry and physics. Art and science.
The city of Osaka is huge! I would only spend about 6 days seeing it so I devised no plan at all besides to simply go wandering the city. No directions, no focus. No plan. Where Hiroshima is two cities, Osaka is just one but large and in charge. There is sometimes an industrial beauty to the city when seeing high rises standing above history and beautiful old buildings. The city always seemed to just rise up to me. Higher and higher. Stretching in all directions. To embrace Osaka is to take the idea it cannot simply be understood. It must be just taken a bit at a time. I never believed I could just take it all.
My days would start with coffee at the hotel, sometimes I’d find a bakery or a coffee shop and indulge. Most of all though I just wanted to find my little corner of this giant city and taste it, test it, find the resident. The person that epitomized the city. That young or old Japanese person that touched their city with fondness, boredom, or excitement. I saw all the emotions in the young. Osaka seems to be a city perennially at a rush to reach some place. One can move from urban scenes to quiet parks in moments and suddenly be outside the rush. Taken in to a park where the visitors sit on park benches. One man reading his daily shimbun, observing with glass filled eyes, youth dancing and moving and still greeting him with respect. His paper held stories of the day I imagined. Perhaps another world story I had opted out of.
I could move so easily around Osaka. Day or night, the city always felt safe yet thrilling to the touch. Lights and sounds and conversations. Many talking in English like the young school girls practicing.
My days blended together in Osaka. Sights and sounds. Beer and food. People and places. To remember one thing was to remember all things I saw in Osaka.
There is beauty hiding in the sprawl. Wonders around the corner. Choices made and kept to find just a measure of the city Osaka. I tried for days but in retrospect the days all became one day. One long day in one big city. While I loved visiting the city, it was not my favorite this time. But I was also bedazzled by the sights and would stop as the ladies and cherry blossoms became acquainted. Then finally I would seek and find some measure of another part of this city. Beautiful flowers and peaceful people enjoying every last moment of the days in Osaka. I found the big, the comforting, and the local.
Want some more of Osaka? I don’t blame you. Big and busy. Check out the album here.
Finale? No way
My time would end though and so my time would end in Japan. After 5 days I would leave Japan from Osaka airport. There’s no finale to this. There is going. Going West. Leaving Japan after a month or so, took me to a place where life became so much more and I would find this other expression of the Edge.
I’ve realized in this writing next is a relative term so I take liberties with time and space writing these stories. The stories follow no chronological order. We have enough of that in life so I have tried to obscure dates because when you did a thing is not so important as doing the thing.
This is my story of a passion spent and still alive with a place and people. The story about Vietnam that will come to pass is more of a love affair, a wonderful moment of moments that would be numerous visits and even living in the country. So, instead of trying to cover this wonderful, unique, funny, and sometimes strange country as a visit or places, I will cover all of my time there as one story. One time that was so many times with so many people met, friends and family found. There is no real end to the country for me. Even to this day it stretches onward but in memory only. Memories, moments, and experiences.
The people I found and lost and found again
Going West is a work of fiction and fact. Some people are mashups of groups of people but especially here in Vietnam. There are too many real life stories but the fabric of the being there, living there, loving there brings all of it all around to me. Vietnam is unique for me and I would visit so many times. When I needed a place to refuel or find peace, I’d return. Or when I wanted to find a person I shall call Nhanh. Nhanh was a fixture in my life for a few years. She entered and left and made sweet and sorrowful moments. In the end I never did understand her and perhaps my one failure was to believe I could ever understand another person. I’ve come to realize with Nhanh and others, people are not understood. They only give as much as they want you to know. Nhanh was no different yet she took my heart in many ways. I was old. She was young. I wanted something. Not sex or romance but togetherness, love, friendship. Someone to share those same memories, moments, and experiences with. Perhaps my failure was believing I could have it but we never do give up really wanting to find a person that will offer us something, give us something and take it. Nhanh was that person. She perhaps gave and I took and I gave and she unhesitatingly took. But when the time came to find how it all came together it was not to be.
Our final chapter would be in 2020 in Quy Nhon City in central Vietnam. Then would be the last time I would see her. As I drove away in a taxi with the last text message being one to her phone. The last one ever. This one thing lasted from 2019 to the end of 2020 and so many things happened within the time.
It seems only days upon recollection but I always had this other person in my life. Ly and I were friends for a long time. She lives in the Mekong Delta while I just traveled around but called Hanoi home. We would meet for dinners, coffee, beer in many places. Hanoi always seemed to be prominent but I also flew to Can Tho to see her as I wished and she asked. It was not until after I left Vietnam and after years of finding Ly as the best comrade and friend, that we both felt there was something else tugging at us. I hesitate to use any words describing the feelings because they seem deeper than some word and seeing how stubborn she is in many things and especially with relationships, it became apparent last year after I left we both needed each other. I think it has been hard for Ly to admit to feelings because the words are so different between cultures but over the times of my movement, she has been there. Now still even with movement out of Vietnam but the truth is while I lived in Vietnam, perhaps I took her for granted just a bit. I guess I am like that. I was a gypsy and hobo traversing whatever Vietnam had to offer. Truth be told I was always after just the purposeless going and not arriving.
In these wonderful yet strange times I would meet two others. He a retired American man and she a younger Vietnamese woman. They became close and then closer to me. She became my mom. Yet another mom that would forever ask,
are you sleeping well? Do you eat ok? Are you happy?
And I would tease her but under that was this love affair for all the Vietnamese moms I managed to get. My friends Stan and Boss would meet me for dinners, breakfast, beers, coffee. Their boys would give me hugs, yell they love me on WhatsApp calls, take selfies and ask Boss to send to me. We would enjoy many dinners since Boss is a world class chef and she enjoyed the most of all things, cooking. Not just Vietnamese food but whatever. Stan would make homemade burritos with salsa and we would enjoy side dishes of Vietnamese delicacies. All washed down with copious amounts of Hanoi beer. My last days were a whirlwind of dinners and lunches. Tearful goodbyes, hugs. I walked back after drinking a few too many beers and it dawned on me then like perhaps thousands of times, it was indeed my last day in Vietnam. After I left, the boys would cry and ask why I had left and that they wanted me back. It took some of my heart to see those wonderful friends in just a small window on my iPhone.
I feel fortunate though to have met so many wonderful people. Especially those wonderful caring, stubborn, and loving women. There are many and I miss them. Vung in Hanoi would forever message me to just make sure I was happy.
Another set of Vietnamese friends I was so fortunate to have were Chang, Manh, To, and Vu and their families. Chang would invite me to her wedding celebration and then introduce me to her dad. We would go out to eat at a variety of restaurants from pizza, hamburger places, or american bbq. This group in Hanoi were one of my core groups of friends. All spoke English and would always ask if I wanted to meet for dinner, coffee, beers or to just check on me.
Life was a delightful, mirthful mix of people that all seemed to reach and hold me, keep me safe in their thoughts, and also want to just meet for food in different places.
My moments of Vietnam always were of movement in the country. I loved walking the cities, finding places like alleys to enrich my life, people that entered and exited that the camera lens would forever take. For all my time spent over years in Vietnam, it was about the movement.
I loved all the country but perhaps my one true love was Hanoi. Hanoi had this wonderful social and gregarious nature. A capitol city with attitude. Part so old and yet parts that would stir my soul, mist my eyes. All in Hanoi. My first time for months I fell in love with the city and the people. Many times I visited but lets stir all these into one pot and talk Hanoi.
There’s one place in this wonderful stew. This place I called home. It seemed to have all the ingredients, recipes, pleasures that made living so worthwhile. Beautiful Hanoi. This city of neighborhoods. I came and went so many times. It always filled me with a sense of belonging. It is worthwhile to note all the places I had lived since 2009 did not seem like home. They were long or short stays. With family or not. Nothing that engaged the home feeling until Hanoi. Perhaps it was all of the soul and wonder I found. All sometime felt within a coffee shop or a moment to relax and simply enjoy a wonderful piece of art which always takes me back.
I’ve wondered why Hanoi and not Da Nang which is my favorite city. It would never be Saigon. There was too little to like and too much to hold in my heart and soul. So Hanoi it was. My home. Every time I came back I felt I was coming home. Like Hanoi opened its arms. Held me. Caressed and whispered.
I would stay short or long and then go again and Hanoi changed but waited. I feel the core of my identity is rooted in Hanoi. Like when I am there a switch is turned on. A warmth and vibrancy. People that were so warm and authentic to me. Friends met. Families even joined. In Vietnam families extend out and I became an uncle. Only in Hanoi was I so centered and full. So in all the cities I would visit over the years Hanoi held my heart and soul.
There are many lakes in Hanoi but only one West Lake. If Hanoi were my heart and soul this lake was my spirit. I could have coffee in the mornings, beers at night and find a different lake. Sunset was always this force of life.
I would wander the city down big avenues and alleys. Find hair salons and small coffee shops. Hanoi is powered by coffee, beer, pho and bun cha.
All to be found down some alley. Down another street were banh mi stands. So many different kinds and tastes. I would joke with my Vietnamese friends and say,
Vietnam is spelled F O O D
So much food. Everywhere. Down my street roast duck with vermicelli noodles so rich like a stew. So many noodle dishes. So much street food.
Hanoi. Home. Both start with the same letter. Perhaps you understand why I would return. Always return. Find that warmth. That one place Going West which was arriving. While Hanoi was home I found so much in so many places. I would travel south to north or just stay in one place. Still all was Vietnam and the wonder and wanderlust never ceased for me. In all Vietnam I felt this spirit take me. These warm arms hold me. For an old hobo finding the moments to enjoy were good.
In the space of years, I would travel up and down Vietnam a few times. One time north to south and including a train trip of 30 hours to go from Hanoi to Saigon. Other times flying the friendly skies to so many places. I’d visit Hue, Saigon, Nha Trang, Da Lat, Can Tho, Phu Quoc Island, and others. Repeatedly for some places. The times spent going were both personal enrichment but just falling in love and lust with Vietnam and the many different ways it enforces a daily lifecycle I could just take.
While I mentioned Hanoi was home, it was not my favorite city in Vietnam. Da Nang held me in this spiritual loop and would not let go. The result was so many trips back to Da Nang. I always felt that there was this link from soul to soul and spirit to spirit when I reached Da Nang. Walking so many places or so few. Close to Da Nang is Hoi An which I visited a few times. I would sit in Hoi An at a local beer garden with Vietnamese men and women and was warmly welcomed and often checked on for more beer. The people were generous and kind and soon after arriving, I was just accepted with good nature, laughs and smiles.
The golden bridge took me from here to there and left me with this wondrous mark forever in my soul. Yeah. I love Da Nang. I’ll go back some day and touch that city’s soul and heart. Perhaps back to Ba Na Hills to see the bridge again.
Ties that bind are often not kind
So Vietnam would hold me in thrall but since I am not writing this like a travel blog or Lonely Planet report, I am smashing all of this beautiful country together into my memories both real and fictitious. Perhaps it is unfair for a country with the amazing differences to treat all of it as one memory and moment but I feel what does do the country justice is my love for it. I told my many Vietnamese friends many times Vietnam held me close and I often felt it would not let me go. This was unfortunately not true as the pandemic came to be. I would stay and travel during pandemic times for almost 2 years but those ties that held me so close ended up cutting me. I feel any ties that hold us, sometimes hold us back. We all need to move on in the journey. Find our new West whether its south or east or just next door. So as it turned out I had to leave Vietnam in 2021. The journey of many moments ended up being just one and my time seemed compressed into my friend Vung telling me,
Never say goodbye Uncle Mike. Just say farewell.
So the ties that do bind can be unkind but we have to sever them I feel. Perhaps though it is not severing the ties and my friend Chang and Vu and To would say to me to stay safe, they love me, and want me to come back to them safely. They all told me Hanoi was my home forever. Unfortunately forever does not last so I left instead with one haunting song that carried me.
No End to Vietnam
As it turns out and how this story has changed, now I am going back to Asia. That means this wonderful, funny, and strange country with those people that touched my soul and spirit are going to be closer. The blog will contain the day to day and longer stories to come how Vietnam touched me. Late in 2022 or early 2023 I will return and find a new Vietnam. Not like the Vietnam of 2021 or before. A new place that has turned around just for me.
And those stories will be here. Here on the blog. Here in photographs. Isn’t it wonderful how memories and moments all come together with what will be. Xin Chao Vietnam. I’m coming.