Woke up this morning with an agenda. Whatever it is, have to, have to get some of that Vietnamese coffee into my mouth. Yesterday's craving translated to me frantically looking around for the same coffee shop which I found as I strolled around the lake yesterday: The Starbucks of Vietnam. I have just ten minutes to make it back to the A1 hotel before the bus leaves for Halong Bay, and so I hurry up with my coffee that kind of ruins my experience. I scram back and make it just in time to catch the bus: the next phase of my trip. I meet this tour guide named 'Tehn' (pronounced as 'Chen') who tells me that his name can be pronounced in three different chords, and every way you say his name, it has a different meaning. His name meant prosperity. Oh shit, so even my name means the same thing! This guy looks like a Jackie Chan who comes in a small package. Hilarious to the core and I'm not even sure if he's intentionally that funny or is he really serious about everything that makes him all the more comical. He asks me if I'm allergic to anything, and I say "Yes, to Seafood" and his eyes go wide and says "Oh my god! I'm happy I asked because that's all we will be serving on the boat for the next two days! This one time, I forgot to ask, and a Spanish group were also allergic to seafood. Then they got on the boat, and.." Tehn remains silent for a few seconds, looks away with a serious face and says "Terrible.. Just Terrible" leaving me to imagine the rest of the story.
On to the bus, four hours till we reach Halong Bay, and a round of introductions begin. A group of german girls (who's names I don't remember), a young English couple, a Mexican girl name 'Cecilia', a german couple.. Ok, just a lot of nationalities on the bus. I think about making use of Google translator to talk to the german girls, but most of my questions that I could think of seemed inappropriate, such as "Do you know how to swim" and "Are you going to swim in that thing?". Instead, I find this charades game on my phone, and nervously ask the german girls (who seem pretty engrossed with their own conversations) if they want to play the game. "What is this game?" one asks in thick german accent, and I explain. Soon enough we are all laughing at the back, mimicking various animals that the phone throws at us. That got me introduced to Chris and Glenn from Ireland, who seem really sport enough to have a good time on a long drive. These guys are all out fun, and the perfect mix we need to stir things up. Oh, there's our boat, our new mid-sea base for the next thirty odd hours. During the course of the day, we take smaller boats to another island where we hike into a cave that looks just like the Bat cave. After which, upto a hill that has a stairway of a good thousand steps to the top. We climb up and back down. Thighs and Calves are now upgraded to version 2.0!
Conversations feel hard to strike after all the action this day saw. Everyone's understandably tired, and a bit weary about what next. I think of playing some music off my phone, but that still felt wrong somehow. Up until the point in the evening after dinner. Chris and Glenn bring in a crate full of beers and get the party going. Finally! Rounds of beers follow, and that's when I feel it: It's time for Bollywood. My latest victim who falls immediately to the tune of Sallu Bhai's Dhinka Chicka: Cecilia from Mexico. Glenn has his dance moment too, when Chammak Challo plays soon after.
As I think back about that evening even today, the best moment is realizing you are on a boat, in the middle of nowhere, with people you've never met before, laughing over cheap beer and dancing to Bollywood.
Out of immigration and into the cab. "Duong thak duong" my cab driver keeps repeating these words and several other variations of it with someone else on the phone. That was my cue to check if I had Google translator on my phone. It's misty here. A Stephen King novel could get inspiration from the level of fog around us. Distant buildings stand tall but diminished at the horizon. Been a good hour's journey from the airport to the central part of Hanoi. So far I haven't found any chain of restaurants that we usually take for granted in most known cities. No subway, no Pepsi logos, no KFC. Instead, every five minutes I catch a building that stood apart from the rest, like a joker card in a deck of cards. Each of these 'in-your-face-babbi-lehri' structures have the word 'KARAOKE' embellished in gold or in some other fancy way. Ok, so we have a lot of aspiring singers here in Vietnam. I see lots of cars though, the Hyundai and Toyotas have been breeding well in this part. This part around the airport reminds me a lot of Bangalore's airport area- in the midst of nowhere, lush and green. Those who aren't driving in cars are on two wheeler mopeds - all riders are wearing that surgical mask to rid off the smog perhaps. OH I finally find a Pepsi hoarding, maybe we are closer to the heart of this town.
As we reach the A1 hotel, roads get narrower and busier, I encounter atleast twenty picture perfect scenes of locals sitting idly by their own stalls, waiting for tourist customers. Wish I had those huge ass SLR's that could spot the worried wrinkles on that old lady's face as she checks the rain with her narrowly slit eyes eyes. I leave the hotel, began recalibrating myself about where I am. I left my mind out to wander, and that's when I hear Vietnam's calling. The street. The sound of it's people. The strong smell of welcoming hits me instantly. Stronger than their coffee. It wasn't even a minute's walk past the small shops, and about three people stop me on my way: One offers a ride on his tram, a lady offers me local sweets, and a boy from the other side of the road offers to fix my torn shoes. I wonder how he spotted the tear from so far across.
It's way past lunch time, and my stomach's killing me. I've always been skeptical about eating in this country, and being allergic to sea-food was the primary reason. What am I even doing here? I go to a nearby restaurant that looked 'clean' and 'airconditioned'. It was a 'make your own roll' kind of place. Food is the one part of my trip I thought I would fear the most. Pork, rice, wraps and lettuce did all the talking in my mouth, and the verdict: delicious..! Tiger beer seems to be selling at large, more than Heinekens. I also ordered for some Vietnamese samosas that had spring onions in them, really tasty when served with BBQ sauce.
I begin walking around a lake that was recommended by the A1 receptionist. Seemed pretty popular amongst the people around here. I get around to explore more about the people here. All kinds of people. Joggers, lovers, hawkers and ramp walkers. I am amazed by the number of couples getting their wedding pictures taken along that lake. Man and woman in wedding attire are surrounded by professional photographers. This couple with roses in hand seem to be posing, both smiling innocently towards the cameras. Not more than ten metres away, I find an other couple, and then another - each with their own set of photographers. The serenity of that evening, and it's simple story around it consumed me that evening. I'm back in the room thinking about today, and all that really comes to mind is the reflection of the city street lights off it's water body.
This blog may anger a few, disappoint a few and the rest would just laugh at me as I vent for no reason. Manchester United. Truth be told, I have been a fan-in-the-making ever since my childhood. My motives of becoming a United fan are honest. Every time my cousin would come visit me from Mumbai, he would gift me United keychains, posters or calendars. I'm still not sure why he thought I was a United fan, but I never found the heart to tell him that I didn't even follow the sport. I started by hanging the United calendar at my work desk. I have to admit, it looked good. It also gathered a fair bit of attention from my colleagues at work who would nod in approval as they'd pass by my cubicle. Some would stop and ask if I saw the Sunday match, and if I'm looking forward to the next one. I still can't remember how I got out of those situations without revealing to them that I had no idea what they were talking about. Only a few of my close friends knew the real truth, and would tease me by asking me to name any four players from this new club that I was now supporting. Laughter would follow next. 'That's it', i told myself. The next buy I made at Amazon was this glossy red book 'The Official Encyclopedia of Manchester United'.
My next few days went by with me taking in considerable information. I got through the first few chapters about how this team began it's journey turning a small-time club at a railroad company into a multimillion dollar force we now have today. I was easily influenced with my new fascination towards the sport as well; I left the world of cricket behind me and intently began following the Barclays Premier League. I learnt to hate Manchester City as a club, and learnt what offsides meant. I was now able to tag players faces with their names. I was able to hold a conversation with my friends, and most of all- I passed the test of naming not just four, but ALL the players of the United team. My world suddenly became an exciting one as I began to appreciate your passion behind following this team.
I have come to a point where I can write about something truly relevant in the current times with Manchester United. In my few years of following this club under Alex Fergusson's leadership, I thought I made the right choice supporting this team and players who played not for personal glory, but played for the crest on their jerseys. I missed the whole 'Class of 92' phase, but players like Giggs, Scholes, Ferdinand were still in the team. All these players were manufactured in United itself, and that's what I thought made you fans so proud. Unlike City, Chelsea and Arsenal, this team was truly a class apart. True, we had a disappointing last season after Fergusson's exit, and you guys endorsed the new manager, Moyes to be replaced by Van Gaal in less than a season. For any passionate fan, I'd agree it may have been the right choice for a club that demands results. However, in striving for success does that warrant setting aside the tradition of standing behind our Manager and players when the tides are rough? United have been through thick and thin, and you have always seen them through with your support. This club was built on the foundation of vintage players who devoted most of their lives to this club. After these players left, I expected this club to give young players a chance to play their hearts out for at least a couple of seasons, and expose their true potential on the field. Who knows, maybe we'd see the next Scholes or Giggs within our own youth instead of looking elsewhere? But no, instead we push the panic button. We join the rest of the clubs in this rat race we call 'transfer window' and splurge our money to wage for players like Falcao, Di Maria and Vidal: All of whom are well into their peak of their careers, and wouldn't think twice to move to a different club if situations and money enticed them. I hear the chants go on by you 'true' United fans as these multimillion dollar signings score every goal, and I wonder if you really care about this club's legacy or all you really care about is winning? From a half-hearted United fan, this was my point of view and this is not what I signed up for.