Amazing Vietnam. Halong Bay. Sapa Trek. Lots of Pho. International Man Of Pancakes. Godspeed Rockbox, Godspeed!
January 17, 2011
Moc Chau, Vietnam
Hello my Dear Family and Friends,
Greetings from friendly and lovely Moc Chau, Vietnam. Supposedly, this is one of Vietnam’s best tea growing villages. I am sipping some right now, and it is delicious. But this is after a 4 hour bumpy bus ride from Son La, a few beers, half a barbecued duck, and blah-blah-blah-teen cups of coffee, so what the hell do I know?!!?
If you are looking for a funny update on my adventures, this one might disappoint you. My amazing father, Andy Latkovski, aka Rockbox or Grandpa Rockbox, will undergo some preventative vascular surgery today in Louisville to repair or rebuild some of his aortic plumbing in his abdomen. Rockbox almost died about a year ago when his aorta popped open in his abdomen. He almost bled to death, but thanks to about 5 amazing coincidences that I won’t detail here, he made it through.
Those were the darkest days of my life so far. Sure he was in a coma for about 10 days over Christmas, and spent 2 weeks in physical therapy (ask him about making peanut butter crackers on the road to recovery) and a few weeks in an assisted living facility… But he survived and has resumed his former fun-filled and loving lifestyle. He actually came out of all that more loving and gracious and grateful, if you can imagine that. My father knows more people than anybody I have ever met.
My father is still my all-time favorite person on this planet, and I have met some amazing people along the way. If I can become even half as gentle and loving and loved and friendly and adventurous and honest as my father is, then I will consider my life to be successful. Good luck with your surgery Rockbox. I love you with all my heart.
When Rockbox drove me to the Louisville airport early New Year’s Day, we were both crying. He told me that he hated to see me go, but that he was happy that I was going now… because the sooner I go travel, the sooner I will come home. He’s a very wise man!
If you want to send some encouraging words to my father, please do so at biteme19 at bellsouth dot net – he will appreciate your support. And like me, he will definitely appreciate your humor and wit.
OK. Enough about Rockbox. I am sure you are wondering, what does this all have to do with Nicolas Cage’s total lack of redeeming qualities? I am getting to that. Patience, please!
Since my arrival here almost 3 weeks ago, I think I have probably eaten at least 30 large bowls of traditional Vietnamese soup, called Pho. It is basically thin rice noodles, a few vegetables, and a steaming broth base. Pho Ga is the chicken form. Pho Bo is the beef form. Both are tasty. But I usually just get plain Pho, which does not have any pieces of meat in it. And since it is served piping hot, Pho is a pretty safe bet here in Vietnam for tourists. Yummy? Pho Sho! Like Vietnam Kitchen or Mimosa Cafe in Louisville, only better. And cheaper. A huge bowl here is always under a dollar.
Q. Do you know where they have really authentic Vietnamese food?
I spent a few days in Halong Bay with two hilarious guys from London, Adrian and Jordan. We spent a few days goofing around Hanoi before taking the 2 day trip to Halong Bay (see photos below.) As far as scenery goes, the limestone islands jutting up from the sea in Halong Bay are world class. They did not disappoint me. But it was verrrrry cold, but what do you expect in January in northern Vietnam?
Then back to Hanoi. Said goodbye to Adrian and Jordan (aka Breaking Up The Beatles) and hopped on an overnight (sleeper) train to Sapa, way up north. After a full day and night in Sapa (again, VERY cold and damp this time of year), I joined a 2-day overnight trek through the Hill-tribe areas around Sapa. My Pinochio Hotel booked me into a tour group consisting of, you guessed it, 3 other Americans. Turns out they were all very easy-going and adventurous and well-traveled. Kefren from Texas. Huntley, also from Texas. And Alan from New York. We had a blast walking up and down the crazy muddy hills of Sapa, and sleeping in a freezing cold ‘home stay’ in a local village. We went to sleep AND woke up seeing our breath. And in the morning, our blankets were wet from the damp cold air. Still we all slept well somehow.
Upon arriving back in Sapa we said goodbye to Alan (on his way to Laos). Kefren and Huntley and I had dinner together. Kefren had said earlier in the trip that she worked in Texas in management for a major hotel chain. For some reason over dinner I asked her if she knew an old friend of mine, Marco, who also works for the same hotel chain in the Chicago area. She about freaked out. Turns out they worked together back in Chicago many years ago. Small world, especially when you know crazy Marco.
Anycrap. After Sapa I have spent the last three days on public buses traveling near the super-remote Laos border from Sapa through Lai Chau into Muong Lay. And then to Son La and now to Moc Chau. About 6 to 8 hours each day on cold, crowded, butt-busting public buses. I went 2.5 days without seeing another western face, and I did not have a ‘significant’ conversation in English along the way. Finally in Moc Chau I met Stefan from Austria at my hotel. I think we are the only ‘tourists’ in this whole town of about 80,000 people. But the local people are the nicest I have encountered in my 17 days here in Vietnam. And they make an amazing barbecued duck! Tomorrow it is back to Hanoi.
And get this… On the 19th in Hanoi, I will meet up with Mitch, my former roommate from when we were in Madrid for the Vanderbilt-In-Spain program way back in 1989. Mitch is on vacation, read my recent update, and told me he is going to be in Hanoi. So I changed my plans a bit so we could hang out again. Should be a fun reunion. And Whitney (Liv) is back in Thailand. Jean (Canada) will be in Burma soon. Julie (US) will be in Thailand soon. Brett from Louisville/Paris France will be here soon as well. Cuong Vu, AKA ‘King Cuong’ (the craziest German-Vietnamese dude I have ever met), will meet up with me again soon somewhere. And JPM (Berlin) will be in the Himalayas this summer. Bruce and Kiel (US) have promised to come visit me somewhere over here this year. Lots of options to meet up with old friends and new ones. That’s what makes this organic adventure so much fun for me… I never know how it’s gonna pan out.
International Man Of Pancakes (IMOP)
Which brings me to much more important matters… I was recently recognized as the International Man Of Pancakes (IMOP) for years 2008 through 2013. I ate sooooo many pancakes during the past whatever years that the distinguished selection committee (me) awarded me the coveted award for my past service as well as the next few years, just for good measure.
Every year the IMOP Committee (me) gets together and searches the Internet, coffee shops, pancake houses and dark Karaoke bars worldwide to find the person who best exemplifies the following amazing traits:
- Loves pancakes. Breakfast. Lunch. Brunch. Pancake buffets. Dinner. Snacks. If he (or she) is awake, he/she is aggressively shoveling pancakes into his/her pancake-hole.
- Drinks more coffee than humanly possible. So much coffee that the candidate’s adrenal system, spleen, pancreas, esophagus, thorax, hypothalamus, night vision, molars, duodenum and/or liver are forever damaged and/or shriveled/trashed.
- Loves bullet points.
- Has plans to create the Pancake Channel on cable TV. Motto: “All pancakes. All the time.” It will be much bigger than Oprah’s stupid new network. Hello! Oprah! Pancakes!
- Thinks Nicolas Cage is a complete boob.
- Over-uses bullet points.
So I am deeply grateful, completely surprised, and heavily biased to accept the 2011 IMOP award. Thank you. I am crying (a tear). This is a complete surprise. Thank you for this amazing honor. As the Founder of Pancakes Anonymous, this award means a lot to me. I won’t let you down.
Boring! Here are some photos. I hope these are not as boring and dis-jointed as my tangential ramblings above…
Adrian and Jordan buying a bunch of yummy junk food from “The Floating Ladies” of Halong Bay. They floated up to our tour boat and had quite a selection.
The Floating Ladies of Halong Bay.
On the top deck of our Halong Bay tour boat, called a junk. It was super cold and windy, and gray, but it was still a great cruise. Thanks Adrian and Jordan for making it so much fun! Yahooooooo!
My funny friends Jordan and Adrian, from London.
Boys playing tire. When I grew up we played basketball, soccer, football, baseball, jarts, tag, threw snowballs or Frisbees at cars, built tree-houses and set stuff on fire. I never learned to play tire. These two boys were running through the muddy mud near Sapa. In flip flops. Uphill. It was soooo cold that day. They did not care.
Animal House. About halfway along our (casual) 2-day trek around the Sapa hill-tribe areas in northern Vietnam. Ducks. Big Pigs. Little girl playing with a stick. Hill-tribe ladies heading out for a crazy night on the town. Sweeet!
Pig In Slop near Sapa. His pig feet were cleaner than my muddy boots. He sat there for a few minutes, like a big pig statue. Tied to his pig house. Nowhere to go. Just a pig in mud. Day in. Day out. Good work if you can get it, I guess. Til the day they slaughter and eat him. But for that day, he was doing just fine.
Family Photo on the back patio of our homestay (guesthouse), where we stayed overnight during our trek. Left to right… International Man Of Pancakes, Alan (New York), Huntley (Texas), homestay cook/wife, husband, Kefren (Texas). The wife worked her butt off while we were there. Cooked a massive dinner for the 6 of us. And a great breakfast. Pancakes and Coffee… that’s what I’M talking about! She cooked and cleaned. Hubby drank and texted and ignored her. We gave her a big tip for all her hard work and great hospitality. It probably went towards his texting/drinking/ignoring habit. Oh well, we tried.
On the plus side, it was bitterly cold and drafty in our sleeping quarters. We woke up with the tops of our blankets very damp from the misty fog. Like my boots? I look like a gay pirate. A muddy, gay pirate.
Alan apparently loves rice. Sure, I like rice. And I took quite a few pictures and really enjoyed the views of the complicated Sapa rice terraces… But I didn’t take off my coat and jump for joy in my muddy boots like Alan did. Different strokes, I guess. 🙂
A couple of our ‘guides’ during the Sapa Trek. Essentially, we paid one lady to lead us for the two-day trek. She was responsible for making sure we made it through safely, had a place to sleep, and meals along the way. She did a great job.
We would be joined by various local (hill-tribe) women and girls, who would walk with us, chit-chat with us, and help us navigate our way through the muddy trail. Then they would try to sell us stuff like bracelets, purses and jewelry that their tribes had made. They were very sweet and helpful. Please don’t laugh at my boots and my tucked-in travel pants.
Huntley on my left. Kefren on the right. (Hint – I’m the gay looking pirate in the middle – Arrrgh!.)
Can you say ‘Lexicon Sandwich?’
Kefren is the one who used to work with my buddy Marco in Chicago. Small world!
OK. Once again this was waaaay too long and surprisingly boring and pointless. One of these days I will find a way to write eloquently, succinctly, and mechanically. If I somehow, magically, could boil down the many experiences I am having, the awesome people I am meeting, the s**tloads of coffee I am drinking, locals I am making laugh, etc., into a few concise, well-written paragraphs, I would. But that would be like having a real job again. I am just a hack with my own domain name and an iPad. Cut me some slack!
I sold my house to come on this trip. Sold my car. Held off on serious relationships. Put my yoga mat in storage. Said goodbye to my amazing friends and family, neighbors and loved ones. Gave up a lot of comfort and security. And I would do it all again in a heart beat. It’s tough, but it’s what I want to do… for now. But I can say one thing for sure… You can have my house or my car or my possessions. At the end of the day, what I miss most of all are my 8 beautiful, sweet nieces and nephews. Baby Rock. Isaiah. Gabriel. Ireland. Gracie. Maximus. Quincy. Elliott. All under the age of 12, and all sweet and loving and playful little goofy monkeys. I love you all like crazy! I miss you more than anything!
And to wrap this up, I met some locals in Hanoi. One taught English as a professor and tutor. He said to me, ‘I am professor of English. My daughter, he is also English teacher. He is 47 years old.” Confused, I double-checked to make sure I had it straight… “Your daughter is 47 and SHE also teaches English?” He replied, “Yes, he is.” I left it at that. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
That’s it for now. Please, douse your eyes with Visine to get rid of the sting of reading this sub-par, abject filth. Next time I promise I will try harder and better to type good stuff.
Good Luck & Bon Voyage!
Inventor of the Post Card
One Man Think Tank
Founder of Pancakes Anonymous