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Covid Feuilleton #2
[Cán Cấu, 2/22/20]
After Ricky Hatton got whacked by Manny Pacquiao, I read this comment in a newspaper, “It’s disgraceful to call yourself a prizefighter. Go back to your mates to enjoy your pints and bacon butties.” Of course, it’s harsh, for Hatton had a fine career. Not much later, Pacquiao himself would be laid out by Juan Manuel Marquez. We’ll all end up face down, after being blindsided by God, a better man or Bill Gates, etc.
Anyway, I thought of that because it’s pitiful to think I’d traveled, for I hadn’t visited China, Russia, India, Australia or Brazil. Hong Kong and Macau, yes, but not China proper. I’d seen China, though, if only across the river and under lockdown.
Though I had talked about peak travel, I didn’t know its drawdown would be accelerated by a pandemic, however orchestrated. Hereafter, it would be increasingly difficult to cross borders, with even the next country forbidden in many cases. Iron curtains are being erected. You may see Juarez, say, but not go there, and no Tijuana dentist or whores for you.
In February of 2020, though, hardly anyone knew Covid had been unleashed to curtail our movements, for those who survive being “vaccinated,” that is. Kill many, then shackle the rest.
Innocent, I chased Corona-Chan because I thought she was fleeting. Done with Si Ma Cai, I considered taking two or three vans to Mong Cai to, again, gawk at China from across a river, but sensibly, I decided against more dead city porn. Let’s just go to Hanoi, I thought, then head south, with perhaps a visit to Nam Dinh, my father’s native province, to admire its many spectacular century-old churches. It’d also be a homecoming, finally, for I still retain a convincing Nam Dinh accent, though in Hanoi, I can pass as a local, too, thanks to my mother. A stay in Hoa Lu, the 10th century capital of the Dinh Dynasty, was also enticing. Unlike you, I am bonafide royalty, but without two holed coins to rub together. We were kangs.
Before leaving Vietnam’s northwest, I visited a weekly market in Can Cau on 2/22/20. It’s a magnet for tribal peoples in their traditional garbs, though there were plenty of T-shirts, hoodies and nylon jackets with weird English thrown in, “SLERMAN THEBESTFASHION,” “FASHION HOPETOTHEEND,” “Clothing OHTFJKJKJUKKLNKLYHFDBFDTJF JKJKJUKKLNKLY HBFDTJF” and “NEW n YORK,” etc. Many had also replaced their bamboo basket, used like a backpack, with a plastic trash can, of the type found in your kitchen.
Such a festive spectacle would attract many tourists, if it was more accessible. Instead, I spotted only a handful of whites, with one, a large, Santa Claus-bearded Swiss in his early 60’s, looking very comfortable at a low table with a bottle of awful Chinese beer. Joining him, I found out he had been to Vietnam six or seven times. Traveling was his lifelong passion, as it was for his late wife, and that’s why they had no children. Heading to Hai Phong, he highly recommended it for its restaurants and general pleasantness. Having only the briefest glimpse of northern Vietnam’s main port in 1995, I can only remember a one-man bomb shelter gouged into a sidewalk. It’s probably gone.
Hungry, I bypassed the hot dogs, chicken feet and chicken gizzards on sticks being offered at a stand, and entered a restaurant, only to find out they had nothing cooking, even on market day. Buying a Chinese beer and some peanuts from them, I watched some Hmong youths in made-in-China western clothing play pool. Among the last to enter modernity, they would have just a tease of it before it shuts down.
After a 10-hour bus trip from Si Ma Cai, I rolled into Hanoi on 2/26/20. At My Dinh Station, there was a huge sign advising people to wear masks, wash their hands often and alert authorities should they show symptoms of the coronavirus. Outside, I noticed a minibus with a hand written sign taped to a window, “SORRY, BUT WE DON’T ACCEPT CHINESE PASSENGERS.”
Although much of Hanoi’s heritage had been wiped out to make room for skyscrapers, condos, gated communities and hipster hangouts, it was still good to be there, at the heart of Vietnamese civilization. With my backpack and two bags, I trudged towards a cluster of cheap restaurants and guesthouses, and quickly found a room, four stories up, for about 12 bucks a night.
It’s the kind of hotel where three or four junkies could rent a room to shoot up, then pass out. Miscounting the floor, I entered an unlocked room to find some skinny guy lying on my bed, except it wasn’t. “Oh, sorry,” I blurted, but he didn’t even stir.
That evening, I treated myself to an excellent dinner at Fenghuang [Phoenix], a rather sumptuous Chinese restaurant with tasteful murals of China. It was packed with the smartly dressed, mostly. There was one frumpy Chinese lady in floral pajamas of the type Vietnamese call “bà xẩm.” Old school, she’s nearly extinct.
At a pho joint two days later, I spotted a goofy sign, “CORONAVIRUS HAS ERUPTED MOST VIOLENTLY, WITH A VERY HIGH RISK OF CONTAGION. WE SUGGEST THAT YOU REFRAIN FROM SMOKING, TO NOT INFECT OTHERS. WE RESPECTFULLY THANK YOU.” At a pharmacy, a cheap solution was offered, “Soapberry Incense For Sale To Fumigate Coronavirus.” Other than these oddities, life in Hanoi was perfectly normal.
Since a Vietnamese-American buddy, Giang, happened to be in Hanoi, I had lunch and a few beers with him, but otherwise I didn’t contact my many friends in the city. With news that Covid had just broken out in Daegu, South Korea, I had an idea. Forget Nam Dinh or Hoa Lu, I should just fly straight to Corona-Chan. Hotter than ever, she was screaming my name! I’m coming, honey, be patient.
To go sixteen latitudes north in the middle of winter, I needed a jacket, so I bought one for $15, plus a suitcase for about the same price, so I could get on a plane.
A fickle lover, or maybe no lover at all, my stay in Hanoi was too brief. On February 28th, 2020, I boarded a plane for Seoul. It turned out to be the last flight to the Land of the Morning Calm. The next day, Vietnam would close its borders, almost entirely, until now, 12/31/21.
Leaving, I thought I would be back within a month, or maybe six weeks, if I decided to take a ferry to Fukuoka from Busan. Seeing my friends Mieko, Miwako and Samson in Osaka or Tokyo would be very nice.
Nearly two years later, I’m still locked out of Vietnam. Though more science fiction than science, Covid has disrupted, if not ruined, everyone’s life. Humanity has never been sucker punched like this, with the dirtiest blows still ahead.
[to be continued, of course and unfortunately]