Posts

Mr. Peace is a Crazy Son of a Bitch

,

After two and a half weeks in Nha Trang I was ready for something new. Even though my hostel offered free beer at happy hour, and I had some cool friends, it was time for a change of scenery. At this point I had only been to three or four cities in South East Asia and I was looking forward to seeing more.

Street FoodOn my last day I hung out with my friends and we went out for some delicious street food. One of the things that make Vietnam unique is the proliferation of street food restaurants. They appear on sidewalks at frequent intervals, the way there’s a Starbucks on every corner in Manhattan. At these restaurants you can sit on dainty chairs and eat from a table that’s hardly more than a foot off the ground. As we were leaving our restaurant I saw a group of British girls approaching, being led by a guide from their hostel. I felt happy, and a little bit smug, that I was able to experience this with my Vietnamese friends and not have to rely on a guide. After dinner I said goodbye to my friends and went back to the hostel to pack up my bag. The next day, coming back to the hostel after lunch, I nearly missed my bus. In Asia I’ve found that buses are on time as often as there isn’t a murder in NYC for 2 weeks. Never. Most times they’re either twenty minutes late or ten minutes early.

At the last second I got a seat on the bus, distributed crumbs all over from the crumbly bread of my sandwich, and wished that I had chosen to sit on the other side of the bus that wasn’t sun scorched.

A Ride Through the Mountains

The bus ride was a wonderful experience. We drove through dense swaths of jungle, and I imagined what my countryman must have felt like navigating through this terrain half a century ago. Unfortunately, the ride got less enjoyable as the the roads began to unravel into a series of sharp turns and switchbacks.

This didn’t sit well with me.

For some unknown reason I feel right at home in eight foot chop in a fishing boat only a few feet longer than a BMW 7 Series. Going around turns in a cramped bus with sets designed for an Asian grandma, that gets me every time. And it seems to be a fairly unique problem. I talked to a quartet of Swedish girls, and a Vietnamese NGO worker, who said the ride didn’t upset them anymore than losing a dollar would to Kanye West.

By the time we reached Dalat I had two strong feelings. First, I felt thrilled that I had arrived and I wouldn’t have to deal with any more nauseating roads. My second thought  was that this was the most downtrodden, tough looking town that I’d seen in a long, long time. I thanked the world at large that I wasn’t born there, strapped my bag to my back, and took off. With the ignorant optimism of youth I decided to try to find my hostel without using the map on my phone. Lost within three minutes, and I managed to turn a ten minute walk into a forty-five minutes. Then I found what I was looking for. The hostel was named Mr. Peace, and the owner went by the same name.

Meeting the Legend

Mr PeaceOne has to imagine that the hostel was named ironically, because Mr. Peace (the guy in the striped shirt) was the least peaceful person that I ever met in an Asian country. Tall and skinny, he dressed like a gay Manhattan hairdresser who spends $40,000 a year on clothes. He greeted me with a hug, which I wasn’t prepared for, and then delivered me to reception before floating off to another part of the building.

In the coming days I would find out several interesting facts about Mr. Peace. The first is that his favorite word is “motherfucking bitch”, and that’s supplemented by a fairly impressive knowledge of equally unprintable English words. He would frequently run through dregs of he English language, to the delight of his twenty-something, hungover guests.

Another one of his personality quirks was his unusual belief that groping people is an acceptable form of entertainment. While an assault on decency, it was softened by his uncanny habit of grabbing both guys and girls, and his eccentric personality which seemed to justify his actions. I’ve probably made him sound like a monster, and I’m sure that plenty of people came to hate him over the years. But where there  is hate there is also love, and many of the guests adored him. I can’t say that I enjoyed being grabbed when I least suspected it, but if I ever go back to Dalat, I wouldn’t consider staying anywhere else.

Mr. Peace wasn’t who I was most in concerned with in Dalat though. Even though he was one of the last truly eccentric and unforgiving people left on this planet, there was someone else who I was more interested in. She came in twenty minutes after I moved into my room, and I knew right away that I wanted to talk to her.

What’s That Strange Noise?

I was writing an article for a client when Joanna came in. First impression: Damn! That’s a cute girl! Tall, blonde and skinny. She was carrying a bag that looked like it weighed more than she did. I knew that I had to talk to her but with a bunch of other British girls in the room, I wanted to wait to make sure that they wouldn’t join in the conversation as well.

I continued to work and Joanna called somebody back at home. I listened to a conversation that I didn’t understand, punctuated by throaty, gravelly H sounds. Culturally ignorant, I was convinced that she was speaking Afrikaans. I’ve met some people from South Africa, and while they all speak English, I’ve always assumed that some speak a second language.

Her conversation wound down, the British girls left, and when I told Joanna that I thought she was speaking Afrikaans and she rightfully made fun of me. American’s ignorance of other cultures is legendary amongst the infinitely more international Europeans. It turned out to be Dutch, and I got to learn about the distant lingual cousin of German.

Me and JoannaThat night we went to 100 Roof’s Cafe, which turned out to be the most interesting cafe I’ve ever been to in my life. Even though we went there as a group of nearly a dozen, I spent most the night alone with Joanna. By the end of it I knew that not only was Joanna attractive, she was a blast to hang out with too. I felt elated about all of the choices that I had made leading up to this point. If I had left Nha Trang when I had originally planned to I never would have met Joanna, and my entire experience in Asia would have been less enjoyable as a result.

I think about that often. The odd chance that we happened to come together during those few short days in Dalat. It would have been so easy to have missed her in my spontaneous travels from city to city.

We only had a day or two at Mr. Peace’s before I packed up my bag and took the bus to Mui Ne. After the worst bus trip of my life, I rode on the back of a scooter taxi to my new hostel. In my new dorm I met up with a few people that I new from another city in Vietnam, and I got drunk under the table by two Dutch guys who were both named Tim. I had a hangover the next day when Joanna showed up, but I still had the good sense to jump off my bed for a huge. We spent nearly five months travelling through Asia after that, and it was a defining experience in my life. It’s funny to look back and see that it was all made possible by a chance visit to Mr Peace, the most wildly eccentric hostel owner in all of Vietnam.

How to Not Ride an ATV in Vietnam

,

The great thing about this story is that it exists not only the page, but as a video as well. You can watch that video at the bottom of this post, but I suggest you read the story first. It starts like this. Me and Joanna had been together in Mui Ne for a few days and we were just starting to get to know each other. Looking for things to do, we’d heard that you could rent a quad and take it out onto the dunes.

If you’ve been to Mui Ne then you’ll know that massive dunes surround the entire beach side town. I took a bus from Dalat to Mui Ne, and it was a hell of an experience to come down from the mountains, towards the ocean, and watch the lush vegetation turn into sprawling dunes. A few days later at our hostel, three of my friends showed us pictures of them riding quads on the sunset red sand, and me and Joanna obviously wanted to do the same.

The next day we rented scooters at $4 a piece, filled them up with petrol, and started driving out towards the dunes. The roads in Mui Ne are surprisingly well paved for Asia and we made quick time. Scooters weigh less than the average McDonald’s patron and they zip around with surprising speed. It was a half hour ride to the dune, and I did it without a shirt on. A model of responsibility I am not.

Choosing Our Ride

Bronzed by half an hour in the sun, we arrive and park our scooters in the shade. Walking up to a line of quads parked under a line of palm trees, we find out there’s two choices. Nearer to us are the older, beat up quads. They have a smaller engine, and the real problem is that they have bald tires. I’ve read at least a dozen reviews online from people who’ve said that they got stuck in the sand and it ruined their experience.

Raptor QuadParked in front of the old-folks quads, are a line of beautiful new Raptors. Gnarly, knobby tires. Fresh blue paint and aggressive styling, they look like the type of toys that I used to dream about driving when I was a kid. The choice is easy. We pay $50 for half an hour, choose the nicest looking one of the bunch, and start the drive out onto the dunes. After riding a tiny scooter the quad feels ludicrously heavy and hard to control. They’re reputed to have a top speed of 90mph, which would be terrifying and suicidal to test out on the dunes.

The only other time that I’ve gotten to ride a quad for more than a few minutes was with my friend Jessee in high school. We’d push the 400cc engine to its redline, and do circle burnouts on the gravel until the engine overheated and we had to shut it down. Teenagers throwing no caution to the wind, relying on their underdeveloped brain to make decisions. I’d like to say I’ve learned something since then. Have I though?

The Flying Circus

I started driving the Raptor with some degree of restraint. That disappeared within two minutes. Feeling like the king of the dunes, I gun the throttle, make quick turns, and leave a long trail of crisscrossing tracks on the sand. There’s a jeep weighed down with tourists driving nearby. I do my best to make them jealous, even though the quad is only ours for half an hour and I have no clue what I’m doing. The masculine attitude: if it has an engine I can drive it.

Cresting up on top of a small dune I see a large gully in front of us. Past the dip is a large, bland hill that looks easily conquerable. Going into the dip I accelerate, letting the ponies run free. Unfortunately, the hill that looked bland and unimpressive from a distance turns out to be significantly steeper in person. As we climb up it the we can feel the weight shift to the back of the quad. Less and less pressure on the front tires. Every foot we climb we feel like there’s a 2% greater chance we’re going to flip over. The front wheels feel light as a feather and my heart is pounding in my chest. An inexperienced driver, I’m still positive that you don’t want to flip one over on a steep hill.

On the back Joanna is screaming at me to turn around. I listen to her, and use the last bit of traction to turn us back down the hill. We start down, and before I can consciously register a blink we’re flying off the quad, tumbling over the sand dunes, the quad shooting off to the right on its own momentum. I inadvertently steered us straight into a field of undulating waves in the sand, each six inches high, and we hit them with such violence that we were instantly chucked off of the quad and straight into the sand.

As I gain my footing, the first thing Joanna does isn’t to yell at me for being a dim witted, heavy footed fleshy wad of retarded testosterone. Instead, she asks if I’m alright. Immediately I like her even  more than before. A month later when I crash a dirt bike she’ll do the same thing, and I think it’s one of her great endearing qualities. I like to take risks, but the catch is that the risks are often times where the fun lies. Sometimes you get stung, and it was awesome to be with a girl who understood that as well, and took my stuntman approach to life in stride.

The Asian Approach to Safety

For me, the scariest part of our half hour with the Raptor wasn’t getting chucked like rag dolls. The experience that really made me think happened several minutes later. Sobered by the crash, I was driving carefully up the side of another, gentler dune. Coming up on the crest we couldn’t see what was on the other side so I took it slow. Reaching the top, we saw that the opposite side of the dune was impossibly steep, and it went directly into a lake. If I had taken the crest too fast I would have been unable to stop, or change directions, and we would have driven straight into the lake.

This is a good parable for the Asian approach to safety. It’s a fairly lawless place where you have to look after yourself. In America there would have been signs, or a fence, to stop reckless drivers from taking their quad swimming. In Asia, I didn’t even know how close I was to ruining our day until I was six inches away from the edge.

Asia is a wonderful place to let loose and not worry about the law interfering. The flip side is that you have to look out for yourself. You’re not in America anymore. Everything is not idiot proof, the country has not been wrapped in bubble rap and you don’t have to wear a helmet. Some thought is required. Such is Asia, such is fun.

Skip to 1:45 in the video to watch the fireworks.