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  • thatfuturebum

Updated: Aug 9

Moving to Vietnam in 2016 marked my first initial entry into Asia proper. There was no way of knowing just how formative the trip would be in terms of sparking my ongoing love affair with this side of the world for years to come.

Crash Landing In Hanoi

It was around 2am in Hanoi. From my hotel bed, I sent an email to the school that hired me to confirm my safe arrival in the capital city. The mattress was hard as a rock. Leaning my back against the pillows and sitting directly on the mattress, I felt my ass going numb in a matter of minutes. It seemed as though someone had stacked layers of drywall over a set of box springs, then pulled a sheet across the hard surface. I started second guessing my decision. What was I thinking? I didn’t know a single soul in Vietnam. In Cuzco, I was at least able to lean into enough Spanish I had learned from back in school. I had of course jotted down some survival words and phrases in Vietnamese before the flight in, but my attempts to use them at the airport and taxi ride into the city were laughable. The Vietnamese language carries six tones. Six! Mandarin doesn’t even use that many tones. What the fuck was I thinking? I showered and brushed my teeth. Thanks mostly to the jet lag, I slept. The next morning, I awoke and immediately checked my email. An admin from the school had messaged me back.

Hello Morin,

Good morning! We apologize for the late reply. Unfortunately, we no longer have a teaching position available, as our roster is currently full.



The email was equal parts tragedy and comedy. The entire situation felt like a lame Eric Andre bit. It took a few minutes to compose myself before messaging them back. I informed the admin that they absolutely had a teaching position for me, as I had just flown from South America all the way into Asia and my room in Hanoi was already booked for the week. It didn’t matter what the position was. Curriculum building, admin, janitorial. I had signed the contract and taken care of my end of the deal. They messaged back and set a time for the following day to meet and discuss matters further.

I set out into the daylight to get a feel for the new city and find a spot for lunch. I was staying in a popular area known as the Old Quarter. Hanoi was bustling unlike anything I had ever seen, at least traffic wise. Motorbikes filled every square inch of the roads. Not only that, they began bleeding onto the sidewalks, making use of any crevice amongst the chaos. Some with an entire family of four, straddling the vehicle. Two motorbikes drove parallel to one another, balancing a large aquarium. Averting my eyes from the ensuing mania, I spotted a busy Pho vendor across the street. It's important to note that all the tables on the sidewalk were filled with locals. This is the best metric I’ve found when determining if a restaurant abroad is worth its salt. Planning out my strategy to get across, I noticed an older Vietnamese woman stepping into the cacophony of exhaust pipes. With an outstretched hand adjacent to her waistline, the woman began calmly moving it back and forth. Watching her was not unlike watching Neo dodge bullets in the Matrix. She signaled to the hordes of traffic speeding past as they morphed around, providing her safe passage.. “Only one way to learn,” I thought to myself. Stepping into the traffic, I attempted to mimic this absolute legend.

Look, I obviously didn’t die, but my endeavor was far from graceful. I quickly learned that second guessing a single body movement could amount to confusing cyclists, resulting in getting my ass ran over. Later on, I would eventually become comfortable with the maneuver. Complete fluidity of movement, slow and steady. With the patented hand wave near the waist, I made it across and ordered a victory bowl of pho from the woman standing behind the food stall. An array of Coriander, star anise, bean sprouts, thin slices of beef and flat rice noodles sat patiently above a large steel cauldron on the concrete below. Street vendors in busy areas maintained the only sidewalk regions that cyclists wouldn’t dare encroach upon. Another popular staple in Vietnamese culture is called Bia Hoi. This roughly translates to “Fresh Beer” in English. I would discover later on that there was one main local brewery behind the scenes, cranking out kegs for many of the Bia Hoi vendors around the city.

I lowered myself down onto a kid-sized plastic chair at an equally miniature plastic table to eat the noodles. A bowl of small complimentary duck eggs rested in arm's reach next to another bowl of cam sành, a unique strain of orange that grows in Southeast Asia. In street markets you can find a larger variety, but the type of cam sành found at food stalls is about the size of a pinball. From the looks of its thick outer skin, it resembled a baby lime. Breaking it open, I found the guts inside were more of a mild sweet citrus flavor, looking and tasting similar to an orange. The quality of the street food in Vietnam was leaps and bounds from what would've cost three times the amount, stateside. The pho spot was no exception. I took my time eating and scrolling through my cellphone for what else the afternoon might have in store.

Nuances In A Complex Country

Within the heart of the city, I came upon an imposing structure, bearing six looming pillars. Uniformed Vietnamese soldiers stood stoically as they guarded the entrance. Surrounding the brutalist structure was a well manicured green space with wide concrete walkways, purely for pedestrians to meander around. Large red font centered flush above the pillars read “HO-CHI-MINH”. This was the Soviet-designed mausoleum, showcasing the body of Hồ Chí Minh himself via a glass casing. Later on, I would hear in quiet whispers from a few of my Vietnamese friends that it is not in fact his actual body resting inside the glass tomb. After his passing, Hồ Chí Minh was flown into Russia to be exhumed and eventually flown back into Vietnam. Entering the mausoleum, I peered down at the cold outstretched body, completely unaware of the hushed conspiracy theories surrounding the site. Armed guards stood inside, ensuring that no photos were taken of the deceased leader.

From there I went to visit the “Hanoi Hilton.” The ironically named prison turned museum, originally built by the French where Vietnamese dissidents were brutally housed. Later on, the same facility was used by the Vietnamese to detain American soldiers. Much was still on display from when the French were the ruling class in Vietnam. This included guillotines, but even more harrowing were the jail cells themselves. Imagine you are sitting in a jail cell facing the cell bars. Your legs are spread wide, via ankle shackles cemented into the ground. Access to a toilet is a nonstarter. Your only means of using the restroom is to simply piss and shit yourself. The unforgiving concrete floor where you sit has a strategic bend that gradually continues downward towards the back end of your cell. When you eventually succumb to relieving yourself many times over, all of that waste then travels down the curved concrete, where it collects. Eventually your back muscles begin to give out. Your only option is to recline back, resting in a pile of your own waste. This was by design. If you were lucky, you might get called away for a quick and easy beheading in front of your peers via the in-house guillotines.

As history will note, Hồ Chí Minh decidedly left the frame during France’s rule in Vietnam. First, moving to France and the UK, Hồ Chí Minh would make his way across Europe under different aliases. In 1911, he made his way to Boston where he worked as a pastry chef at the Omni Parker House. This is also where the infamous Boston Cream Pie was invented just a few years prior to his arrival. Outside of mastering the art of pastry, he began quietly studying the US constitution and its implications on American society. Unbeknownst to many Americans now, Hồ Chí Minh held great admiration for the west. During World War One, he travelled back to France where he met with other Vietnamese revolutionaries. It is thought that this formative time was spent parsing together a melting pot of ideas that would eventually assist him in what would become the official Vietnamese constitution.

Years later, through a border crossing in China, Hồ Chí Minh made his way stealthily back onto Vietnamese soil. In a small cave near the Chinese border called Pác Bó Cave, he spent weeks plotting his strategy to oust the French colonizers. Eventually, he achieved overthrowing and putting an end to France’s brutal reign over the country. Nowadays, the Vietnamese pay homage to their fallen leader via a pilgrimage to Pác Bó Cave. While the US government had originally propped up the French occupation, it was only a matter of time before Uncle Sam himself would touch down in the jungles of Vietnam. This time, however, the Vietnamese captives were now the captors. John McCain was famously held prisoner in Hanoi during the throes of the Vietnam-American war, during which the US POWs coined the term “Hanoi Hilton”. Quick side note. Referring to it as purely “The Vietnam War” as most in the west have been taught to call it, is reductive at best. During the 20th century alone, Vietnam underwent ten separate full-fledged wars with outside forces. Visiting the Hanoi Hilton and the War Memorial museum in Saigon is an education in and of itself that, as an American, I was never privy to within the public education sector.

Shifting Gears

Okay, back to 2016. Sitting in the main office, I faced my alleged employers from across a large wooden desk. Gazing at the sterile surroundings, they explained that they had simply hired too many foreign teachers for any of their Hanoi branches. Initially, I was hired on to teach secondary level students (ages eleven to eighteen). The admin mentioned this and asked my opinions on teaching kindergarten. At that time, I had only briefly tutored adults in Peru. Not only did I not have experience teaching secondary level students, but the idea of teaching kindergarten terrified me. Even my divorce revolved around the fact that I couldn’t fathom having children, let alone to manage multiple children in a classroom. They explained further that it would be in a small port town a couple of hours east of Hanoi, called Haiphong. I would receive all the original benefits stated in the contract, but essentially I would be helping them to open a new kindergarten branch in the port town. It wasn’t by any means ideal, however I wasn’t in a position to be making demands. So I agreed.

For the next two weeks, I went through training with two other foreigners that were also recent hires. I became fast friends with Marko and Zainab. Marko came from the US and Zainab, from the UK. It was the first time for all three of us in Vietnam, so we bonded quickly over being in the “fish out of water” phase. A week into my training, I stood on the elevator going up to one of the classrooms and checked my cellphone. A surprising notification caught my eye. It had just been called that Donald Trump was the winner of the US presidential election of 2016. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Of course it was a topic amongst the three of us during training that day, and a good enough excuse for Marko and I to go out on the town for drinks later that night.

Upon sunset in downtown Hanoi, your options quickly shift from visiting historical sites and exploring local foods into complete fuckery. Nightlife in Hanoi was wild. Loads of foreigners and locals alike filled the streets. It seemed like mostly Europeans on holiday, so a random Tuesday night felt no different from the heavy throes of the weekend. Stretches of bars and street vendors wrapped around the masses throughout the downtown area. Local hawkers pushed their carts through the crowds. Their wares ranged anywhere from inflatable cartoon characters to glow sticks. Streams of white LED lights chased back and forth diagonally overhead the city blocks. The bar Marko and I ended up at was filled with both foreigners and locals alike. Across from us sat a table of Vietnamese girls, probably in their mid to late twenties. Each one dressed to the nines, holding a massive balloon, easily four times the size of one of their heads.

Each girl proceeded to take a long drag from the rubber tip of their balloon, pinching the end tight after a decent hit and ensuring none of its contents went to waste. I watched as one of the girls sipped her beer in a failed attempt to fend off a bout of hysterical laughter. After visibly fighting to maintain a straight face, she finally gave in and released her grip on the balloon. Sending it across the bar in a falsetto war cry that merely added to the loud House music filling the room. Nobody seemed to notice, aside from the table at the other end of the bar where it landed. Our server walked by and dropped a drink menu at our table, snapping me out of my people watching trance state. I glanced down and there it was. At the very top of the bar menu in a typeface seemingly meant for a birthday party, it read “Funky Balloons.”

In Vietnam, it’s perfectly legal to serve nitrous oxide balloons in any given bar setting. From my vantage point, the casual nature of the scene was incredible. There was absolutely no stigma attached to it. Certainly there are bars in the US with hidden nitrous tanks for this very purpose. It just isn’t something that can be experienced freely in the open. Glancing over at the bar, I spotted the large nitrous tank. What better way to stave off the feeling of your own country’s racist and fascistic backsliding than a massive nitrous balloon to the head. We placed our orders and soon after, the server arrived back at our table. First with my balloon. The nitrous filled my lungs, generously spreading an extra dimension to the lackluster house music blaring through the bar’s seasoned P.A. speakers. For a brief fifteen seconds, warm audible tracers washed over my body and everything fell softly into place. The night dragged on into the early hours of the morning. It was one of those nights that even going into it, you could already feel the coming hangover.

Two weeks slipped past in a hurry. While I was feeling settled in the new city, staying any longer wasn’t in my cards that time around. Zainab and Marko would both stay in Hanoi after the training finished up, as they were the last two hires before the school was at capacity. I told them I was going to Haiphong soon and Zainab mentioned the possibility of a weekend trip to Cat Ba Island. The Haiphong port was a quick pass through to Cat Ba via ferry. The three of us agreed to stay in contact and meet back up for the trip. I shoved off in the following days to discover what Haiphong had in store for me.


Getting into Haiphong, I felt almost a decompression in the air. Time moved slower. Traffic was closer to what a main road in my hometown would have felt like. The locals even seemed a bit more welcoming. In Hanoi, the locals had dealt with unwieldy foreigners long enough to the point where they were clearly over it. Which was completely understandable. Housing in Haiphong, however, was a bit different from how you might think about it in the west. I was told initially to look in Vietnam foreigner group threads on Facebook for a realestate agent. After making a single post, the replies poured in from agents. I didn’t realize at the time that there is a specific street made available to foreigners for housing within Haiphong. Văn Cao Street. Not only did it boast decent housing, it also had a strip of bars and restaurants that catered to those coming into Vietnam from abroad. The local government specifically segregated Văn Cao Street to foreigners that had long term living quarters in mind. It was more than likely put in place to avoid the town becoming similar to the melting pot that is Hanoi.

I stood outside the hotel I’d booked as a landing base in Haiphong as my realtor pulled up on her motorbike. She was young and spoke very good English. Smiling, she smacked the back end of her bike seat and told me to hop on. The first location that she brought me to was above a mom & pop’s shop. Walking through the shop to the staircase in the back, I noticed that the owners were not particularly enthused. The apartment itself was a good size, but it was completely unfurnished. Within Asia, it’s normal to find apartments fully furnished. This cuts out the need to purchase household items and appliances that you would eventually abandon when your contract came to an end. I nudged the agent to let her know it was a hard no from my end of the equation. She agreed and assured me the next place would be more to my liking. On the way to the second apartment, we shuttled through what seemed like an endless labyrinth of winding alleys. Arriving at an apartment building, tucked away in residential Haiphong. I could already tell that it was leaps and bounds from the previous situation.

We walked up a stretch of marble stairs that continued upward for six or seven flights. It was a studio apartment for sure, but it had a Queen size western style bed and lush antique furniture. The ceiling had a unique cut-out in the drywall. The center was cut and raised up into the ceiling. They had installed warm lighting around the perimeter where the opening was cut. I began to notice clicking noises from the gap where the drywall was raised. My agent told me that it was more than likely a family of lizards that also lived there. She started cracking jokes about how the lizard family would take care of any mosquitos or flies. A valid point. She diverted my attention to note that this unit was the penthouse of the building. Directly above was the rooftop, so we went up to give it a look. Walking up the steps, we found ourselves in a fully zenned out space. Fresh white linens had recently been hung to dry. In the center, a round marble table sat with matching chess piece like marble stools. Exotic plants lined the edge of the roof. The centerpiece of the rooftop was an impressive bonsai tree. The agent looked back at me with a smile, fully aware that I was sold at this point.

The only downside was that the apartment didn’t have a kitchen. Instead, a large shared cooking area with an island in the center sat conveniently across from my apartment door. Ultimately, it forced me to be more social with other tenants. The more I considered this, the more I realized that it might be a good thing for me. We went back into the apartment to do one more walkthrough as the owner walked in. Probably in his mid 30s. He told me how he had been working for VinCom for years. Clearly, he’d done well for himself. VinCom is a conglomerate in Vietnam under an even larger umbrella corporation that goes by VinGroup. While highly successful, the scope of VinGroup would make any anti-trust advocates in the states cringe. Right off the bat, he came off as very welcoming with me as a new tenant. He mentioned that his sister had previously been living in the apartment. She was currently working abroad, so he decided to rent it out. I pulled the trigger, and he went back downstairs to get the contract. I wasn’t aware until months later that baked into my rent was the money that the owner was paying the local police each month to allow me to live outside of Văn Cao Street.

Monday broke, and I started my orientation at the main Haiphong branch. It was in a large modern office building on one of the top floors of the building. Exiting the elevator, I entered into the front lobby of the school. The room looked almost like a Pixar creation, but with a minimalist aesthetic. Along the back perimeter was a wide stretching desk in all white, with the School's emblem perfectly centered at the focal point. Behind it stood a handful of Vietnamese women, all in their early 20s. They cheerfully greeted me, smiling and asking if I was Tristin. They were draped in bright red uniforms. Formal from the collar to the waist, with the school emblem sewn in at the breast. Completing their uniforms were matching red short skirts and high heels. Over lunch, one of the sale’s girl explained to me that their contract was explicit about this. They must wear makeup accompanied with the short skirt uniforms and high heels to the workplace. These girls were mainly tasked with convincing parents to sign their children up for the program. By “parents” I mean the fathers of the children. The foreign teachers that I met shortly after were like-minded travelers from all over the world, ranging from South Africa to the Czech Republic.

Weeks passed just as quickly as they did in Hanoi and I was becoming more comfortable in my teaching position. Due to the fact that Haiphong wasn’t really a travel destination, the foreigners that did live in and around the city tended to be more tightly knit than those living in Hanoi. I found a motorbike at a decent price, which made it even easier to navigate around the small city. My Vietnamese friends were beyond accommodating and always reaching out to share their culture with me. One night, I was invited out to a local restaurant for dinner. It was a very modest Vietnamese dive spot. The interior of which had photos of various dogs on the wall. I passively acknowledged it, but thought nothing of it at the moment. I’m fully aware that you know where this is going.

The food arrived, and we dug in. The whole setup was family style, with multiple plates of vegetables and meat. I noticed the meat was all dark meat, and I wasn’t able to place its taste exactly. It wasn’t bad, just a little gamey. I asked one of my friends what kind of meat it was. In his pronunciation, my brain heard “duck meat.” Which would make sense in terms of the texture and the dark meat aesthetic. I found out the following day that it was most certainly dog meat that we had eaten for dinner.

This is not something that would be considered typical in Hanoi or Saigon (if so, I hadn’t noticed). In areas outside the larger cities, you wouldn’t have to look too hard to find it. Apparently, when a local restaurant specializes in a specific animal, photos of that animal are displayed on the walls. Later on, I began to notice local spots that hung photos of pigs or chickens. Snail restaurants were also quite common. One of which was surrounded by open terrariums and a rout of snails oozing around the open seating area. By the way, it’s well worth a visit to any of the snail spots in Vietnam. I will say that the sauce they’re served with is doing a lot of the legwork.

A couple of things regarding the dog night out. I have grown up with dogs as pets. I am a dog lover, through and through. While I definitely wouldn’t go out for dog meat again if it were my choice, I’m also not ashamed of it. Food that your culture deems acceptable or even holds up as a delicacy will more than likely be a taboo on a differing continent. In some parts of Mongolia, eating fish is prohibited. Hindus, of course, believe that cows are sacred and not to be eaten. Many religions feel that pigs are unclean animals. In some African communities, eating chicken and eggs is even prohibited. All that to say, humans may be the strangest animals of all.

Laying on my bed, I listened to the small family of lizards click back and forth to one another in the ceiling above me. I began thinking of “home” for what it truly is. A social construct. Aside from cultural taboos and language barriers, I was surprised at just how fast I felt at home in the community of Haiphong. It’s easy to remain in the place where you were raised and wrap that in the packaging of home. I also want to be clear that there is nothing at all wrong with that. My argument is that perhaps any place can be home if you broaden the lens a bit. My cell phone vibrated, pulling me abruptly out of my head and back into my apartment. It was a text from Zainab. She and Marko were about to book a tourist package in Cat Ba Island for the upcoming weekend and wanted to know if I was still into meeting up. I’d been wanting to get out to Cat Ba, but decided to wait until the trip with both of them.

Morbid & Stunning

The ferry ride from the port of Haiphong to Cat Ba was around an hour, depending on which ferry you went with. The faster speedboats were called hydrofoils, although the larger, much slower ferries had their perks as well. Had I known that I could have taken my motorbike along with me for the trip, I would have gone that route. On board was an array of mostly locals. Some, most likely commuting back to the island where they reside from a long day’s work in Haiphong. Others carefully watched over cages with live chickens stacked on top of one another. The ferry also came equipped with a bar. Not a bar in the traditional sense, but an area where you could purchase large bottles of local beer and snacks. Which I happily took advantage of.

As we approached the island, it was far more beautiful and intimidating than I could have ever imagined. I watched in awe as we cut across the emerald sheen of paper thin glass-like waters. A cascading fog greeted an arrangement of sea stacks. Nearby waves raised up proudly, confirming they had spent perhaps millions of years carefully shaping the stone columns. The surroundings felt as if they were manifested directly from Tolkien’s brain, set on a remote island. Underneath the breathtaking backdrop, eerie undertones operated at almost inaudible frequencies. The legend behind the naming of the island dates back to the Tran Dynasty in the 13th century. Three women were killed and cast into the ocean, only to be found later by local fisherman on the island. Each of their bodies had washed ashore mysteriously at three different points of the island. Thus the name Cat Ba Island translates “Woman’s Island.” I’ve searched to find more information on who these three women were, but nothing thus far.

The ferry eased its way towards shore as one of the crewman leapt from the bow onto the warm sand. Catching a thick knotted rope, he began to tie the vessel securely to a wooden post as we gathered in line to make our way onto land. I checked my messages and Marko had texted to say they would be there within the hour. I headed towards the hotel. Resting just on the outskirts of the main beach strip of Cat Ba, the three of us decided to save a bit and share a room for the weekend. I checked in and got settled. Stretching out on the bed, I excitedly played through my mind’s rolodex of what the island might have in store for us. They arrived not long after and we headed out for a bite to eat. Seafood seemed fitting. Cat Ba was the first island that I’d visited as an adult. This might also explain the impact it had on me. I ordered a soup with just about every type of inert marine life you could fit in a large bowl. Floating atop the glass noodles in a cluster were round, bleach white, edible discs. Thinly sliced, with a series of symmetrical holes, this was an exotic vegetable found in Asia known as the lotus root. Not my favorite flavor profile that I’d come across at that point, but I wanted to at least give it the benefit of the doubt.

The restaurant sat next to a stretch of other bars and clubs. After dinner, we shifted over to grab some drinks on a second level balcony bar overlooking the now dark waves. We took turns sharing stories of our experiences thus far at the school that had employed us. What plans, if any, we had beyond our stay in Vietnam. In my case, there was no overarching theme. My move to South East Asia was already one of the most spur-of-the-moment life decisions that I’d made at that point. I considered my options. Heading back to the states to try and piece my life back together in some fashion was certainly one of them. The other being to continue my travels as a teacher abroad and explore living in new countries. At that time, Zainab was an aspiring YouTuber. She had been creating interesting videos related to Vietnam and juxtaposing it with her own British culture. Marko seemed as content as I was in Vietnam, but overall, there seemed to be something clouding our clarity in terms of what we were really reaching for with all this. We settled up our tab and headed back to the room for an early morning ahead. Bright and early, we would shove off to a nearby island called “Monkey Island” to start the day. As you might have guessed, there are in fact, monkeys that reside there. While not native to the island by any means, it was clear their marketing scheme had worked.

Lying on the makeshift sleeping area that I had arranged on the floor of the hotel room, I shot up from whatever REM state I was in. I glanced down at the bright light from my cell phone. It was approaching 6 am. Marko and Zainab were both sound asleep. It wasn’t due to a nightmare or anything to my knowledge that I woke up, but something was definitely wrong. After touching my face, I noticed a large area was completely numb. I crept into the bathroom to have a look. Switching on the light and peering at myself in the mirror, I discovered my upper lip had completely mutated. It made a modern day Mickey Rourke seem tasteful by comparison. For some reason, my upper lip had swollen three times the size of its original shape. That entire region of my face felt similar to when you’ve just been freshly injected with a heavy dose of lidocaine at the dentist. What the fuck was happening to me? At least in the throes of a heavy LSD trip, you can take solace at the shifting topography of your face in a bathroom mirror. In those moments, you know full well that you’re experiencing a temporary hallucination. This, however, was very real. My only hope was to lie back down and try to go back to sleep. Perhaps when the time came to wake up in a few hours, the swelling would subside and I could chalk the entire incident up to a harrowing but brief encounter.

In the time it took to fall back to sleep, it was already time to rise. I laid sprawled out on the floor with a blanket covering my face, pretending as if I were still deep in slumber. I could hear Marko and Zainab pacing happily around the room, preparing for the day. Reaching up towards my face, the numbness was still in full effect. The few extra hours of sleep hadn’t made any headway with the reality of my now massive phantom lip. I had no choice but to show my friends what had become of me. As I sat up, Zainab shouted, “good morning!” from across the disheveled hotel room. Upon glancing down at me, she gasped, “What happened to your face, man?” Marko came out of the bathroom. A toothbrush hung from his mouth as he peered over the bed to see what the fuss was all about. To both of their credit, they refrained from uncontrollable laughter regarding the comical change in my appearance. I told them that I had no idea what was going on. Possibly an allergic reaction. Zainab questioned whether a spider or a small lizard had bitten me in my sleep. Who knew? The only thing I was certain of was that there was no way in hell that I would be making the trek to Monkey Island with them that morning. For fuck’s sake, I looked like an extra from the original Planet of the Apes film. I told them that it was best I stayed behind and found a hospital nearby. They of course agreed and wished me luck. Finishing with their morning routines, Marko and Zainab were off for monkey Island.

The Hospital Cave

The last thing that I wanted to do was show my face to the general public, but I had no choice. I proceeded to take a shower and shuffle through my backpack for clean clothes. Exiting the elevator, I made my way to the main lobby of the hotel. Surely a staff member could point me in the right direction to get this monstrosity looked at. As I approached the woman standing at the front desk, she managed to stay calm, as if nothing was out of the ordinary. I told her that I needed to find a hospital and asked if she had any recommendations. She explained that my best bet would be to walk roughly a block down the road and rent a motorbike. Then to follow along the perimeter of the island, heading north for about fifteen minutes. I would eventually see the hospital up on the right side of the incline. Utilizing my freshly mutated face as leverage, I haggled with the man running the motorbike rental spot. He first started at $12 USD and eventually arrived at $8 USD per day (roughly from 285,000 down to 200,000 in Vietnamese Dong). I drove the motorbike briefly up and down the strip, checking its front and rear brakes, as well as the headlights. With everything on the up and up, I paid the shop owner and was on my way.

For a brief passing moment, I had completely forgotten the predicament my face was in, as I blasted north of Cat Ba on my newly acquired motorbike. The roads were composed of smooth black asphalt that traced the perimeter of the island. As the road continued higher in its elevation, I periodically pulled onto the shoulder to enjoy the view from on high. Following the road up into a more jungle flanked backdrop, I came upon a sign that read “Hang Quân Y Hospital Cave.” Under any other circumstance, I would question a hospital within a cave. In this case, I figured yea, ok, why not? I spotted an opening in a patch of thick brush that appeared to be the entrance. Sitting opposite of the entrance was a quaint family run outdoor restaurant. As hungry as I was at that moment, the hospital visit was my top priority. I carefully maneuvered the kickstand over a large flat stone as to avoid it sinking into the soft jungle soil. Above me was an outstretched staircase that led roughly three stories high. The rusted out steps were juxtaposed by shiny steel guard rails, clearly added on much later.

Approaching the staircase, I noticed there were two other foreigners also making their way up. A Vietnamese flag hung at the very top of the staircase, as if it were a prize to be awarded upon reaching the summit. I felt like a deformed Mario, approaching the end of the level where I had to reach the top of the flagpole to continue the mission of rescuing the princess. My exaggerated lips curled into a grin, and I continued up the addled staircase. After reaching the top, I was greeted by two older Vietnamese men in military garb. Behind them hung lime green vines, like netting from the cave entrance. One man pointed down to where I had parked. He asked if that was my motorbike sitting in the brush. Nodding to them, they explained that proper parking was at the restaurant across the street. Next, they asked me if I had purchased an entrance ticket. Referencing my jacked up lips, I explained that I just needed to see a doctor. I wasn't aware that I needed to purchase a ticket to enter the hospital. Both men began laughing hysterically.

They informed me that this was no longer a functioning hospital, but rather it was a historic site, turned museum. I couldn’t believe it. Of course, it wasn’t an actual hospital. During the Vietnam-American war, they had retrofitted Quân Y cave as a makeshift field hospital for injured Vietnamese soldiers. This was in the mid 1960s, during the escalation of US soldiers in northern Vietnam. Humiliated by the absurdness of the situation, I asked the two men where I could purchase a ticket. They pointed down across the street next to the restaurant. Peering down, I spotted a woman sitting at a small fold-out table selling tickets. Shrugging to myself, I climbed back down the staircase to move my bike and snag a ticket.

Perhaps there wasn’t even a proper hospital on Cat Ba. I was so embarrassed by the entire ordeal that I figured, what the hell. I might as well go on the tour. Scaling the staircase again, I handed the guard a ticket and proceeded on with the tour. After waiting a moment on a tour guide, I realized that I was left to my own devices in exploring the site. For me personally, it was the ideal scenario. Entering the first room, I was surrounded by adult-sized dummies. They were dressed in Vietnamese military uniforms and laying on stretchers. Even more off-putting was the fact that they were all wrapped in transparent plastic. Empty tables sat sparsely among the tightly wrapped, injured figurines. This space was clearly used for triage. It was surreal to see this end of the equation. A direct response to the harm that my government had caused not so long ago. I continued on, deeper into the cave. If you’re of a certain age, you may remember an early first-person shooter game called “Doom.” It was the predecessor of a PC game called “Wolfenstein” that was of a similar ilk. In the game, you would pass through a series of rooms with stone doors that were more or less square cut outs, looking for enemies to fire on. The interior of the makeshift hospital appeared to be the inspiration for the Doom universe. They had fashioned the walls out of cement within the cave, and large square entrances held empty stone rooms. Purely utilitarian light bulbs hung silently, providing just enough light to pass through without walking into a wall. I imagined what it must have been like as an active hospital during the war. Thin beds propping up soldiers that were bleeding out or perhaps receiving an amputation to an injured limb. The energy coming from the concrete interior was a thick molasses, seeping through cracks in the walls.

This was not a museum in the sense that there were artifacts from that era, or text hanging on the walls where you read about the goings on from that event. The rooms were laid bare, with attached hallways stretching throughout the cave. Periodically, a palpable sense of the death washed over me. Halfway down the hallway, I noticed a staircase on the left. Climbing the stairs, I passed the two foreigners that I saw entering the cave earlier. We nodded to one another as they went down the stairs and I emerged into a large cavernous space. It was roughly the size of a decent planetarium, but clearly, this was a natural formation. Stalactites quietly passed water droplets via their aged tips, communicating with the opposing stalagmites on the cave floor. In the very back, I spotted a raised area with a sign that read “Khu vực cấm” or “Forbidden Ground.” Behind it stretched a narrow set of steps carved into the rock that led to yet another square cut out on the stone’s surface. As much as I wanted to hoist myself up and explore, I decided to respect that this area was not meant for me.

I sat down on the concrete floor and began to intone a few bars from a recent song that I had been writing. As I continued softly humming, my voice was swept up into the natural acoustics of the cavern. The tonal quality of the space would’ve been an incredible venue for a chorale ensemble. Time and historical measures made the cavern's natural acoustics incidentally provide what would have cost tens of thousands of dollars in an auditorium or a theater. I knew that I would eventually try and convince the gatekeepers of the cave to allot me time to record in the space. Sitting for a while longer, I soaked up the eerily peaceful air in the room and headed back down the staircase. Making a left back into the narrow hallway, I followed it all the way to the end, where I found an exit. They had made a narrow vertical cut into the concrete wall.

The exterior of the back end of the cave looked like something straight out of Labyrinth. Above the exit hatch was a massive stone wall, covered modestly in moss and vegetation. Connecting seamlessly to the concrete brutalist style build of the outside wall was the natural stone from the cave. Erosion from millennia had weathered the mineral into more of a Hieronymus Bosch painting than a cave wall. Opposite the wall was a viewing point that overlooked the lush jungle waiting below. A staircase connected to the back of the exit area led me gently down a dirt trail. Eventually, I found the road that led back up to the restaurant where I had parked my motorbike.

The đàn bầu man

Touching my face, I noticed that the swelling in my lips had gone down, although not yet completely. Perhaps I just needed some time alone in a cave for my face to get back down to normal after all. Climbing the winding strip of road back up towards the restaurant, I set out to get a bite to eat. Approaching the restaurant, I heard an instrument that I hadn’t yet heard before. Next to one of the tables, a man sat in front of something that looked similar to a pedal steel guitar. However, its main features were completely alien to me.

The base of the instrument was a rectangular, ornate wooden beam that sat horizontally on a keyboard stand, stretching out to about four feet in length. It had a single steel string that was wound tightly and fixed about three to four inches parallel above the wooden base. Which meant that there weren’t traditional frets in the way that you might imagine on a guitar. Instead, I noticed that he had penciled in the frets on the surface of the base. His right hand held a thin piece of white bone, which he had shaved down to about a quarter inch thickness in diameter and mildly beveled at the tip. It was clearly created specifically for the instrument. I assumed by his own hands. Since the steel string was set high above the wooden base, he used the pad of his index finger along with the bone pick to produce different harmonics from the instrument. I watched closely as he pressed gently onto the string, plucking the bone pick upward while simultaneously pulling his finger off the string. Depending on where he was hovering over the fretboard at that moment, determined the pitch.

He was using a pick harmonic technique popularized by guitarists such as Eddie Van Halen or, more originally, Roy Buchanan as early as the 1950s. It’s typically used to add an ornament to a solo riff, but in this particular instance, this was the entire foundation of the instrument’s utility. Finally, I watched him operate the most interesting feature of the instrument with his right hand. Rising at a ninety-degree angle from the far left-hand side was a thin wooden strip of wood that had been affixed to the base. At the bottom of the strip was an outwardly facing wooden bell of sorts. Ultimately, it looked like a horn affixed to the side of the instrument. Using his right hand, he slightly cajoled the horn outwardly with his thumb. If manipulated, one could bend the harmonic note as far as two whole steps up or down. A more nuanced motion could even give the note a manual tremolo sound. This was the equivalent to a mod wheel on a synthesizer, but purely analog in this case.

I sat quietly, listening to him weave a hypnotic melody from the monophonic instrument. The reason that I could hear him playing from all the way down the street as I approached the restaurant was because he had modified it with a pickup and a quarter inch jack. Which he then ran a guitar cable from, into a megaphone nesting outward in between the middle hinges of his keyboard stand. Once he finished playing, I began asking him about the instrument. He struggled to respond in English, but we were successful in establishing each other’s names. His name was Mr. Dinh and the instrument is called a đàn bầu. I later discovered that this is an ancient Vietnamese one-string zither that has been around for more than a thousand years. Traditionally used in Vietnamese folk music, it had first been played predominantly by blind men. I couldn’t help but draw a parallel with the origins of American blues and the blind bluesman of the late 1800s, such as Blind Willie Johnson. I was fascinated by the đàn bầu and wanted desperately to learn at least the basics of it.

Mr. Dinh and his wife were the owners of the restaurant. They were also local farmers on the island. Using a translator app on my cellphone, I discovered that he was interested in learning English. I explained to him that I planned on purchasing a đàn bầu in the following weeks. Whenever I came to visit, he agreed to give me a đàn bầu lesson, and I would reciprocate with an English lesson. I ordered a popular crab broth noodle dish called Bánh đa cua and drove back into town. By the time I made it onto the main strip, my face was back down to normal. Later on that night, Zainab and Marko arrived at the hotel. We closed out the long day, sharing our adventures over a few drinks.

Unbeknownst to me, that first trip to Cat Ba would shape my new life in Haiphong for the remaining year that lie ahead. I would acquire a đàn bầu and frequent Cat Ba island for lessons from Mr. Dinh. Eventually, I would become close with the gatekeepers at the Hospital Cave Museum. The laugh line of how I initially found the site never got old to them. Visiting the large cavern to record would become the perfect escape for balancing my social life and creative outlets in Haiphong. I was even given permission to set up on the raised forbidden ground area. Foreigners passed through the cavern and would sometimes leave tips out of pure confusion. Perhaps they were under the impression that I had been hired on to provide ambiance for the space.

Note: The track “Fortuner” from Tryptamine’s EP release “Jaguar Priest” was originally recorded from within the Hospital Cave Museum on Cat Ba island.

  • thatfuturebum

The immense historical footprint left by Turkey and cradled within its borders cannot be overstated. Spanning ripples in humanity from the earliest known megalithic structures built by Homo sapiens to the city of Troy itself. Threading the needle all the way through the Babylonian, Assyrian, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires, Turkey is incomparable to many of its geographic counterparts in the region. Making the short list of transcontinental countries, it rests in both Southeastern Europe and Southwestern Asia. In a mere half hour, one can take a ferry from Europe, crossing the Bosphorus Strait, directly into Asia. All within the borders of Istanbul. In this episode, I'll cover the first of many chapters in Turkey. Let's get into it.

Leaving Burma

It was September 2020. I left behind the golden pagodas of Myanmar and landed in Istanbul. By now you have more than likely heard about the recent military coup that took place in Burma. Either way, here is some brief but important context as to why I left.

Yangon (the old capital of Burma) had taken me in as one of its own. While it was not my first visit to the country, it was my longest stint at seven months. Sadly, I found myself at a crossroads with the upcoming Myanmar elections in November 2020. Despite the will of the Burmese people on the whole, the fascist establishment that ruled Myanmar with an iron fist prior to 2016 restricted Aung San Suu Kyi from ever becoming president of her own country. According to a constitutional amendment drafted in 2013, if a Burmese individual has a family member or loved one of foreign descent, they are ineligible to hold office. A law enacted specifically for Daw Aung San as her late husband was British. Even further disqualifying, as her two sons are of course...Brit "ish."

Instead, she managed to secure a position as State Councilor (basically Prime Minister) of Myanmar. For all intents and purposes, she has been the beloved leader and, above all, the face of the NLD (National League for Democracy) party since the beginning of 2016. This is not to gloss over the fact that she herself is a flawed individual, particularly regarding the Rohingya people of northern Burma. A long-persecuted ethnic minority within Myanmar's borders. Born of a revolutionary lineage, her father, General Aung San, is revered as the architect of modern Myanmar, though he was assassinated in 1947. Just six months before Burma's independence was fully realized. Aung San Suu Kyi would run as an incumbent against the USDP (Union Solidarity & Development Party) in the 2020 elections. The Burmese military has its own political arm (the USDP). An ultra-nationalist, pro-military party that has essentially created its own caste and refuses to even date or marry anyone without affiliation to the Tatmadaw. The majority of my Burmese friends in Yangon warned me that the elections could easily go tits up. That I should probably leave the country before things officially kicked off. So I did. Side note, they were horrifically correct in their predictions.


It had been six months and some change since the World Health Organization officially announced the pandemic. Still in the Covid thick of it, my options were limited as to which countries would accept tourists, let alone without an expensive and lengthy quarantine. Keep in mind at this point, a vaccine had not yet been developed. After searching multiple government sites online and taking careful note of travel restrictions, Turkey made it to the top of my list. There was no quarantine whatsoever, and the mandatory PCR test that I had read about online was never administered to me after touching down at the Sabiha Gökçen International Airport. To be clear, I wasn’t opposed to getting a PCR test. I’m purely pointing out just how lax entry was into Turkey during that time.

Leaving the airport, I took a taxi into the city. I had booked a couple month's stay at an apartment in Taksim Square. Imagine the Turkish equivalent of Times Square in New York, minus the crackheads in superhero garb. It wasn’t long before I fell for the city. The food alone blew me away. It’s impossible to overstate the high level that Turkish food operates at. Even the drunk food is something that, to this day, I find myself craving out of the blue. At the front of Taksim Square, they have a handful of shawarma food stalls that sit side by side. In addition to shawarma wraps, they also serve Turkish sliders that are particular to the area, called Islak burgers. Basically White Castle with a higher quality beef, dipped in a savory tomato sauce. Simple, but perfect in its execution. As I finished eating, I noticed a newspaper clipping on the wall at eye level. It was a write-up on that very street vendor, with a hero of mine standing in the center of the photo. Anthony Bourdain held a shawarma wrap, flanked by two men who more than likely prepared his food that day. His humble nature carried over into the camera lens, giving a half-smile mid-chew. Clear validation that I’d chosen the correct shawarma spot.

Ultimately one of the cleanest cities I’ve lived in, Istanbul is a sprawling metropolis with a population of nearly 16 million. The street trams and Metro transit were so efficient that there was hardly any learning curve involved. To my surprise, Istanbul is very much a cat city. The feline overseers had been well-looked after, provided with food, water, and sleeping areas. They even seemed to approach humans with the same affectionate demeanor as a flock of birds at Disney World. Apparently, this is such a phenomenon that a documentary has even been filmed about the cats of Istanbul. Though I haven’t seen it. With a majority Sunni Muslim population, the call to prayer pops off five times a day from minarets throughout the city. Some with a genuine muezzin reciting the prayer into a mic, while others would press play on a recording that sounded through a large megaphone. Depending on where you were situated, the outcome was a cacophony of dissonant layers reverberating between structures. At times, it felt like something Autechre might weave into a live set. Eventually it all became white noise and my brain would no longer register the sacred spectacle.

Hagia Sophia

Roughly thirty minutes by tram from my new home, sat Hagia Sophia. As a red-blooded American, it’s hard to fathom a structure riddled with such rich history, stretching back nearly two millennia and still functioning to this day. Originally a pagan temple, Hagia Sophia was first commissioned during the time of Emperor Constantine in 360 AD as a Christian cathedral. At that time, it went by the name Megale Ekklesia (or Great Church). Centuries would follow, and time would have its way with the iconic structure. In 1453, an archetypical minaret would appear on the exterior of the once cathedral as it transformed into a mosque. One deity quietly conceding to the other, along with the attire and text of its followers, carrying on as if playing a game of ethereal musical chairs. Sprawled across various sections of its domed ceilings was a unique display of frescoes. Some were plastered over and repainted, some decidedly left untouched. In 1935, the Turkish government decided to turn Hagia Sophia into a museum. This held all the way up until 2020, when it was reopened as a mosque once again, shortly before I touched down in Istanbul.

Strolling through the insides of Hagia Sophia, the energy felt instantly palpable. Locals gathered sporadically around the mosque, sitting in prayer. Draped in a dark slate gray and illuminated by more than a hundred stained glass windows, the interior strikes a rare balance between Islamic and Byzantine architecture. Ornate chandeliers hung so low in some instances that if I were any taller, it would be difficult not to make contact walking underneath. The cartoonishly massive chandeliers were affixed with bulbs that from a distance, appeared as sharp glowing teeth. Personally, I say go big or go home. A friend of mine had told me to keep an eye out for frescoes of angels that hadn’t been fully plastered over from the older cathedral periods of Sophia. These are not the winged cherubs with trumpets, adorned in white garb and flowing golden locks. These were angels as depicted in the Old Testament. From my angle, these ghouls are both oddly engaging and utterly horrifying. The Imam stood and began to cast a hypnotic prayer into the room, while I quietly played "Old Testament Where’s Waldo?" on the upper interior of Sophia.

Out of the roughly nine types mentioned in the OG Testes, I was after one set of angels in particular. Ophanim. Also referred to as "the many-eyed ones" or simply "Wheels", described more so as what extraterrestrial crafts might have been interpreted as during biblical times. These were beings made up of four interlocking topaz-like rings, the rims of which were each bespoke by large blinking eye balls. Imagine being visited by this fella back in the day. Interlocking sentient rings descend onto you, embellished with an ungodly amount of living eyeballs. Constantly rotating, the surface of each ring pressing against the other, creating a sonorous and uncomfortable tone. Then softly, in your own native tongue, it whispers, "Fear not." This is the stuff of nightmares, and I’m here for it. Sadly, I didn’t come across any Ophanim that day; however, I did stumble upon a mosaic that encircled the outer region of a dome, crudely depicting Seraphim. Jarring in their own right, Seraphim were described as mammoth, fifteen-foot beings. The center of which featured a vacant human-like face, from which six crimson wings stretched out in every direction. Allow me to reiterate. A face with three sets of seemingly blood-soaked feathery appendages. You know…an angel? If for nothing else but pure marketing, I can see why the church decided to lean more towards saintly cherubs in white garb with a knack for the harp.

Cisterna Basilica

Beneath Istanbul rest several hundred ancient subterranean cisterns. One of the most important and largest known underground complexes in the history of the city (roughly two football fields in length) happens to be right across from Hagia Sophia in Sultanahmet. The Basilica, constructed during the 6th century while the city thrived under its namesake, Constantinople, is a prime example of an extraordinary architectural feat from that era. While the locals continued drawing water (and even fish) via wells from within their own homes, long after the Byzantine era and into Ottoman rule, the Basilica cisterns were completely unknown to the rest of the waking world. Even those drawing water from the reservoir at that time were unaware of the historical behemoth resting just below the surface.

In the mid-16th century, a French natural scientist and archaeologist by the name of Petrus Gyllius traveled to the city with the intent of studying Byzantine-era ruins. By happenstance, Gyllius overheard some locals discussing a vast subterranean complex nearby Hagia Sophia. After finding the location of the nearby complex, he procured a canoe to traverse the now defunct cisterns. With only a notebook and a lantern, Gyllius recorded his painstaking measurements, mapping out the interior of the complex as he went along. After his accidental rediscovery of the Basilica, he penned what would become an important book to the archaeological community, entitled "Istanbul Bogazi.” Although Gyllius died of malaria in 1555, his works (including Istanbul Bogazi) were published posthumously by his nephew. Sparking international interest and more study into the history of the ancient cisterns. The local government in Istanbul carried out a massive cleanup of the site. This included not only a build up of garbage, but also dead bodies that had been building up for a millennium.

Exiting Hagia Sophia, I came upon the famed cisterns nearby. It felt surreal walking down the stairwell. There was a mustiness in the air that I wouldn’t even attempt to try and place. Reaching the damp underground corridors, I found myself surrounded by the ancient marble columns. Shallow water quietly surrendered around the pillars. I imagined a time when the reservoir boasted up to 100,000 tons of water. The space urged me to look up and around at my surroundings. Because of this, it was easy to miss two stunning relics peering silently from the water’s surface. In the northwestern corner of the sunken palace, two Roman-era statues sit. Each bust impaled by its own marble column. These are the severed heads of Medusa. One head of the mythological Gorgon sits upside down, while the other lay sideways, partially submerged in the water. Trademark flowing snakes extend from each of their scalps.

Note: This image is AI generated, because I am an irresponsible man.

One theory behind the placement of the two mythological figures ponders the possibility that Byzantine architects of that time felt as though Roman-era relics were nothing more than recyclable material. Thus, they were used as such. Another is that Gorgona statues were used during that time as a form of protection for various town structures. Similar to the Chinese Foo Dog guardian statues that acted as protective architectural ornaments during the rise of Chinese Buddhism. Probably the most accurate theory lends itself to an early known Christian practice of placing Pagan-like symbols or statues upside down in a show of religious dominance. The next time you see an upside-down crucifix, just smile at karma properly inserting itself.

The Grand Bazaar

Climbing back to the surface, I jumped a tram and headed towards my last stop. The Grand Bazaar. Built in the fifteenth century, it originally began as two stone structures. Today, the Grand Bazaar spans over sixty covered street blocks and is considered to be one of the world’s first marketplaces of its kind. Its placement within the heart of the Ottoman Empire meant that it was perfectly situated for trade between three continents. Imagine starting with two humble buildings and expanding into an international trading hub, the likes of which had never been seen. No big deal. Items such as silk, spices, hand-woven textiles, furs, and jewels were main staples, and business was booming. As humans do from time to time, the Ottomans got a bit greedy. They started to impose heavy taxes on goods as well as the enforcement of strict religious rule over traders coming from outside territories. The Ottoman Empire’s tight grip within the western region at that time played a major role in essentially ending the network of Eurasian trade routes, widely known as the Silk Road. R.I.P. you silky road. European merchants didn’t miss a beat, however. They got creative and took to the high seas in order to find new trade routes. To hell with the Ottoman Empire, they said. I would imagine. Ultimately, this was dubbed the Age of Discovery.

Maneuvering my way through the covered enclaves of the Grand Bazaar was an experience unto itself. That it remains largely unchanged to this day is a testament to the advanced architecture of its time. While I wasn’t there to shop, that didn’t stop some shop owners from doing all but physically puling me in to see their wares as I walked past. Some of which I humored. I wanted to get a better sense of the living breathing history still drifting throughout the massive corridors. The shop stalls ranged from intricately woven Turkish rugs and nargiles (or hookahs) to bağlamas (a Turkish lute instrument) and Rolex watches. Food-wise, I was able to find much of what I’d read about, just as it was displayed during the Ottoman period. Troves of Turkish delights, baklava, dried fruits, and nuts made up an entire section of the bazaar. An impressive selection of exotic spices were scooped from large bins and sold by the kilogram. Suffice to say, the line between the old world and modern day began to blur.

In the following weeks, I settled more into the city, obeying the mild rules put in place to curb the spread. Fully masked, I dug through crates of vinyl at a local record shop, thinking about the times when I could justify buying something so frivolous. Rather than considering the weight and practicality of every purchase. Knowing full well that every ounce in my luggage was something that needed serious deliberation over, as it meant being hauled around for the indefinite future. Or at least for however long the slow drip apocalypse chose to rattle on for. I wondered how long until a vaccine would be developed and green-lit. What were the odds that I would even be in a country with access to it? The road ahead was paved with invisible ink for all of us during those days. At least for humans. Plants and wild animals, not so much. They were out having an absolute fucking field day, which they deserved every minute of. I’ll be honest. The confusion and fallout of it all was on a certain level, intriguing. Working remotely, I was given the privilege and freedom to explore whatever strange new world lay ahead. I felt I might as well embrace it. Keeping my apartment in Taksim as a landing base, I packed my backpack and headed southeast to the ancient city of Şanlıurfa.


Both Myanmar and Turkey have a special place in my heart. While they're far from one another geographically, these sweet people have been dealing with tragedy on an unspeakable level. Below are links to two amazing charities if you are in a position to help support.


Updated: Aug 4

Imagine a population density of over 130 million people living amongst the rest of us in our globalized technocratic society, without anything resembling statehood. In fact, this large subset have consciously resisted being drawn into the hypnotic hum of bourgeoisie and consumerism. In essence, this is a diverse subculture of successful anarchists. In 2002, anthropologist Willem van Schendel studied this very phenomenon. Schendel dubbed the region Zomia.

The term Zomi is a common Tibeto-Burman word for highlander. It refers to a people who aren't divided by borders or countries and who live across certain elevated regions in China, India, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Bangladesh and Taiwan. After moving to Vietnam in 2016, by happenstance I came across the concept of Zomia and became obsessed with it. I couldn't shake the idea of creating a frequency-based drone record using samples from various geographical locations and rituals within the Zomia region. Using Vietnam as a home base, I planned a series of trips to gain inspiration and collect samples/field recordings for the project.


Luang Prabang

It was mid-November 2017 and I had just landed in Luang Prabang for the first time. My T-shirt acknowledged the balmy surroundings by sticking indignantly to my upper body. Life in Southeast Asia did get a bit drippy at times, but I'd take tropical climate any day over the snowy backdrop that blanketed my hometown of Lexington most winters. My eyes scanned the sprawling expanse of palm trees competing with sizable golden effigies, all in Buddha's namesake. The Mekong, Asia's third longest river, stretched diagonally across the city's northern shoulder, gradually winding down to its delta in Vietnam, known locally as the Nine Dragons.

Prior to arriving in Laos, I did what would become a typical routine for me on my travels. I searched for decent YouTube videos and practiced the basic words/phrases for country "xyz" I was entering. Next, I took out my journal and wrote down survival phrases along with their English translation on the opposite end of the page. Numbers one through twenty, followed by the remaining numbers in multiples of ten up to 100 in the new language proved to be a handy tool, especially when trying to ask for the price of something at a night market or even grabbing late-night street food.

However, I was embarrassingly oblivious in terms of the history between my home country and Laos. This was mostly due to cherry-picked information offered by the American education system regarding the true scope of the damage wrought by the US government abroad. Walking through downtown Luang Prabang, I began to notice some very strange decorations adorning the exteriors of many bars, restaurants and cafes. Large unexploded missile casings stood upright from in the ground like ominous totems, and in some cases, missile casings had been sliced vertically down the middle and turned into makeshift flower planters.

After stumbling onto a motorbike rental shop, the first thing that caught my attention upon entering the building was a woman sitting at a desk in front of a wall that served more as an altar of war than anything else. On the wall hung an array of military grade weapons, clearly from a bygone era, ranging from grenade launchers and rifles, to magazines and a pile of unexploded missile casings. As we discussed my options for acquiring a motorbike, I mentioned my curiosity regarding the weapons on the wall behind her and she asked me where I came from. I replied that I was born in the United States. Smiling, she urged me to visit the UXO Luang Prabang Center after finishing up at her shop.

Uncle Sam wants you!

{to avert your eyes}

The UXO Luang Prabang center is an information center that aims to shed light on what happened in Laos during the Vietnam-American war. From 1964 to 1973, the CIA had been conducting a shadow war in Laos. Now known as “The Secret War”, the CIA had been funding anti communism militias in northern Laos. Specifically, the Hmong and the Khmu people. Already minorities within Laos borders, they were at a disadvantage long before the war even began. The Hmong and Khmu that didn’t want any part in what the CIA was up to, had no choice but to pick a side. In northern Laos, the CIA had set up a clandestine military base and was working with anti-communist Hmong militias. At the Eastern border of Laos, there were communist supply lines being utilized on what is known as the Ho Chi Minh trail. Weapons were being funneled into Northern Vietnam from that region in Laos, as well as some border regions in Cambodia.

Long story short, the CIA made the decision unbeknownst to anyone back in Washington, to drop more than 270 million bombs on the country of Laos. This was a horrific effort to cut off the communist supply lines running into northern Vietnam before they would be turned against the US troops on the ground. The CIA dropped more bombs on Laos than Germany and Japan combined during WWII, making Laos (per capita) the most bombed country in the history of the world. Sadly, the majority of the casualties from the mass bombing were the very Hmong and Khmu people that set out to assist the CIA to begin with.

The term UXO is an acronym that stands for Unexploded Ordinance. Basically, the unexploded American bombs that still lurk within Laos soil to this day. So much as a child playing in an open field could and has easily set off what is essentially now, a series of land mines. The United States launched more than 580,000 secret bombing missions across the country. It’s estimated that out of the 270 million bombs dropped on Laos, about 30% are still currently active in the ground and waiting to explode at any given time. This means about 80 million active bombs remain, peppered throughout the entire country. Not only am I still floored that this is not taught to Americans within our education system, it’s even more infuriating that the US government has yet to do anything in terms of righting this tragic wrong that took place in our recent history. The government is simply not revealing this dark reality to the American people. At the very least, we have an obligation to diffuse any and all active bombs in the ground that are still killing and injuring Laotian people to this day. As it stands, the UXOs in the ground have killed or injured over 20,000 people.

I began to see Luang Prabang through an entirely different lens after being confronted with this horrific reality. Just as an aside, the people of Laos were welcoming and warm, knowing full well that I’m an American. I had similar experiences from my time spent living in Vietnam. The strength, beauty and humble nature of both the Laotian and Vietnamese people lies firmly in that they are able to separate me from my government. They knew that I had nothing to do with those tragic events, nor would the majority of Americans support what our country pursues on the global stage. The US government essentially functions as the world's police force and they understood that as the unfortunate reality. Sadly, I doubt that Americans would reciprocate the same warm welcome if the tables were ever turned.

Asiatic Black Bears

& The Infinite Waterfall

For the purposes of this story, I won’t go into every detail of my time spent in Luang Prabang, but I’d like to at least shift gears a bit from the death knell laid out in the previous section. Roughly thirty kilometers south of Luang Prabang, sits Kuang Si Falls. Set deep within in a vast tropical rainforest, a gradual cascade of turquoise water lines its interior.

Reaching the start of the trailhead to Kuang Si, I was thrown yet another unexpected curve ball. Right out of the gate, Laos was proving to be full of surprises. Just to my right was a substantial adult black bear, greeting me through a chain-link fence. Its nose protruding through a hole in the fencing as it began to sniff the air, catching my scent. Shrugging a bit, as if already losing interest, it turned away to socialize with another nearby black bear. As it hobbled away, I noticed it was missing one of its front legs. Venturing to the front of the gate, I found a painted sign strung up by rope. This was the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Center. A sanctuary for Asiatic black bears that had been rescued from bile farms in China. Still its own form of captivity, the sanctuary seemed to provide plenty of space for the bears to reside safely and even roughhouse with their peers on a large wooden playground. Sadly, Chinese poachers had abducted these bears from their habitats. Sedated and placed in cages far too small for them to move freely, they were taken to a secure location at one of the many bear bile farms. The poachers extract their bile and leave them for dead once they’re no longer of any use. The bear bile is then sold throughout China (legally, in some cases) as TCM, or Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Apparently, there has been modern research done on the medicinal properties found in bear bile, and it does in fact have a wide range of pharmacological applications, with little to no side effects. While this has been a practice in China for over 3,000 years, it should go without saying that the process of extraction and the conditions of these animals is beyond horrific. The organization that funds the sanctuary is called the “Free the Bears Fund.” I’ll drop links at the bottom of the page to both the UXO Luang Prabang Center and the Asiatic black bear organization, if you’re interested in learning more about their work.

I left the bear sanctuary and continued on, trekking deeper into the dense rainforest. Wild pigs wrestled in quarries without a worry in the world. Fire ants fed upon the carcass of a large snake that they took down as a community. The calming stream felt more like a divining rod, leading me to its source. Eventually, I found myself standing below an imposing multi-tiered land mass, stretching up to 50 meters high (roughly 165 feet). I rested, taking in the dreamlike exhale of Kuang Si.

How to Schedule a Shaman Appointment

Sometimes, in order to get what you’re after, it’s not necessarily a bad approach to lean into something seemingly frivolous. In hindsight, many of these scenarios, whether good, bad or awkward at the time, end up being catalysts somehow directly connected with the thing. Whatever “the thing” happens to be in that moment.

The entire purpose of this particular trip was to glean inspiration and make progress with the Zomia album. There were smaller boxes to check as I made it through each day, and of course, being open to novel situations for slight course corrections should always be welcome, but ultimately this was a work trip in my mind. One night in my hotel room, I posted a photo to my instagram feed. It was a passage from a book that I had been reading about the various minority tribes living in Laos. This particular passage was regarding the Hmong people. While they have many ceremonies and nuanced belief sets, the one that really caught my eye is called Sou Khuan (pronounced Su Kwan) or Baci as it’s known by locals. A string tying ceremony that carries the English translation of “Spirit Calling.”

The Hmong folks believe that as healthy human beings, we are a union of thirty-two physical organs (seventy-eight if you ask google, but who’s counting?). Each of which needs to be protected, thus each organ should have a protective spirit attached. However, they believe these thirty-two spirits are not necessarily bound to the physical body and can be abducted by evil entities or simply lose their way from the body they aim to protect. In this case, you may find yourself short of your full thirty-two, leaving you vulnerable to illness, injury, depression or even death. In some cases, demonic spirits may swap with some of your thirty-two protector spirits and wreak havoc on you from beyond the veil. This is where Sou Khuan comes in. By tying a set of sixteen white cotton strings on each wrist and carrying out a specific series of chants, the shaman is essentially reaching into the spirit realm and fastening each of your thirty-two protector spirits back to each physical organ.

I wasn’t sure exactly how to pull off making my way into a Hmong village and orchestrating this scenario. I drove my motorbike along the Mekong on the outskirts of the city to various villages and was beginning to feel like it might be a bust for this trip. My Lao was already very weak in terms of communicating with locals, but on top of that, the Hmong people speak a dialect called Hmong Daw, which I was not at all familiar with. I decided to shove off to an area in Laos called Phonsavan. The best route would be to go by bus from what I had read, due to the quality of the roads being absolutely tragic. These bus drivers that go back and forth on a daily basis are much more used to it, versus me trying to hack it via motorbike.

I had one final day to kill in Luang Prabang, so I decided to embrace the tourist in me and I booked a “Zip-line through the Jungle” excursion. Included in the package was an optional jungle hike, so I figured why not? The location was a bit far out of the city, but I had gotten an early start, so I jumped on my motorbike and headed back out alongside the Mekong River. When I arrived at the Zip-line spot, I met a group of foreigners that had also booked the package that day. They were all from the UK and had paid a tour agency for an entire Southeast Asian trip. I don’t want to discourage this kind of approach to travel by any means, but for me, this is a nightmare scenario. Being stuck in a group of folks with a tour guide wielding a strict itinerary, dictating everything from where we eat to what we do and how long we have to explore said location. I completely understand how this takes any guess work out of traveling abroad and certainly is a safer approach in general. It’s just a bit too sterile and planned out for my taste. I want the freedom to decide last minute if I should shift gears and maybe go in a completely different direction. Anyhow, it certainly works for some folks. Again, I do see the utility in it.

The Zip-lines were located in a proper jungle. Peering up into the treetops, I could spot the various Ninja Warrior-esque obstacle courses. Large rubber tires strung together in a lengthy series, connected to rope bridges leading up to even higher elevations. No lie, I was excited. Chatting with the group, we exchanged the typical niceties and questions that foreigners tend to exchange in this type of scenario. I mentioned the jungle hike option in the package. They had all decided to opt out of the hike, only opting in for the Zip-lines. Once we all finished with the Laos gladiator obstacle courses and zipped through all the trees available, I met with Biaomin, my guide for the hike. His English was very good, and it was clear that he was passionate about his upbringing in Laos. Being that it was only the two of us on the hike, I had plenty of time to pick his brain on what I was really setting out to do for my visit to Laos. As it turned out, he is part of the Yao community. Similar to the Hmong, the Yao also migrated from China in the 19th century. They also hold an Animistic belief set and are part of the many tribes that make up the highland regions of Zomia.

I explained to him that my plan was to visit a Hmong village and work with a Shaman in a Sou Khuan ceremony. It turned out his village was directly next to a Hmong village, and both tribes were friendly with one another. He agreed to speak with some of his Hmong friends about my proposition. The villages don’t have running water or electricity, so my best bet would be to reach him though a work landline. He pulled out a small piece of paper and jotted down the number of the Zip-line spot and told me to call him in a few days. I explained that I would be on a bus the next morning heading to Phonsavan for a week. The prospect that I could possibly pull this off was already lighting me on fire, though on the outside I did my best to remain calm. Who knew the best route to lock in a ceremony with a shaman would be to go to the nearest tourist trap and Zip-line for a day?

The Plain of Jars

The next morning, I headed to the station and in short order, I was on a bus to Phonsavan. While not on the tongues of many tourists in Laos, Phonsavan should be. Within the region are multiple megalithic archeological sites, dubbed the Plain of Jars. These sites ultimately remain an enigma to those who have studied it. Dating all the way back to the Bronze Age, over ninety jar sites have been recorded thus far. With over 2,000 jars scattered throughout the province of Xiangkhoang in Phonsavan, archeologists have yet to find any tools that would’ve been used to chisel these massive stone jars. The majority of the jars were made from sandstone and some stand as high as three meters (over nine feet) tall. Originally sealed off with lids, you can easily find flat stone discs lying in between some of the jars. One remains intact with a lid still resting on its surface. It’s also believed that some may have had more perishable lids fashioned from wood that weren’t able to stand the test of time. Also, consider that these have been sitting out in the open since the Bronze Age. Surely, the first thing that humans did when coming across these ancient jars was to flip over the lids and see what valuables await inside.

In 2017, when I visited the plain of jars, it was not yet on the UNESCO World Heritage list, as it should have been. The main reasoning behind this was that there are still so many unexploded bombs littered throughout the sites. The extent of UXO in the area made it to where only three sites were safe to open to the public. The catch twenty-two of being snubbed by UNESCO was two-fold. Having the status would put the plain of jars on the map and bring in tourism, which in turn would generate funding to enable those working to diffuse the mines on the more dangerous jar sites. By blacklisting the plain of jars, UNESCO was essentially leaving the sites in relative obscurity and stifling any growth in tourism that might enable locals to raise funds and diffuse more bombs buried on the sites. The good news is that it appears in 2019, UNESCO finally decided to add the Plain of Jars as an official world heritage site.

Archeologists still have yet to uncover anything about the people who built these megalithic jars, or exactly what purpose the jars served during the time of their use. However, back in the 1930s, a pair of archeologists found a few jars with burnt bones and teeth inside. The current theory is that they used the jars as urns at burial sites. Ancient crematoriums. This is more than likely the case, but I prefer the legend and mythology passed down throughout the centuries, via those whom lived in Phonsavan for generations. One legend tells of giants that existed in the ancient times. They used the large sandstone jars to drink their Lao-Hai, a local rice whiskey. Another theory is that perhaps the jars were once used to store water, getting ahead of the dry season.

The bus from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan was rough. Imagine largely deteriorated, single lane roads, winding constantly for the majority of the trip. I personally don’t mind winding one lane roads, but when the roads themselves are that bad off, it would be better to just make do with dirt roads. The trip should’ve been roughly eight hours in total, but due to the road conditions, we had to pull over twice to deal with flat tires. Instead, the trip ended up being around eleven hours long. It was still worth it. Upon arriving in Phonsavan, I could feel a change in the air. It wasn’t that Luang Prabang was by any means, a bustling city. Yet, the more rural aesthetic of eastern Laos seemed to be where my head was at.

The next morning, I got up early to visit the jars. My photos couldn’t have possibly captured just how surreal the scene was at the three open sites. Running my hands across the surface of these prehistoric jars felt like time travel. I imagined what life must have been like during those times, before recorded human history. How brutal and tragic it must have all been. Also, how rewarding it must have been in some ways that we can’t even begin to grasp, within the technological haze of modern society. Peering into a jar, I found thick green sludge that had built up over who knows how many years. Cows silently passed through the megalithic jars while they grazed. On the way to the next site, I accidentally stepped on a random square stone embedded in the grass. Engraved in a thick font, it read MAG. Luckily, this was actually a good sign. MAG (Mines Advisory Group) is an organization that started back in the late 80s in the UK. They work with war-torn governments all around the globe to assist in diffusing landmines and other cluster munitions. The flat marker in the ground that I stepped on was there to show that the general radius had no UXO.

The following day, I awoke. Un-crumpling the small piece of paper that Biaomin had given me, I called the number. The phone seemed to ring for ages. I honestly didn’t have high hopes that the Hmong village idea would work out. Finally, someone picked up! It was Biaomin, after all. He had spoken with a friend of his in the Hmong village and the shaman was interested in meeting with me for the ceremony. Obviously, this was not a typical tourist venture. Before I had the chance to ask him how much they might charge for this, he said the Shaman asked me to pay what I felt was fair for the ceremony. Biaomin suggested that I meet with him in his village after arriving back in Luang Prabang. From there, he could join me in the ceremony for any translation that I might need. In terms of payment, he also noted just to pay what I am comfortable with. He had also never witnessed this ceremony and was curious. For the trip back, I wanted to avoid any fuckery that I’d dealt with on the bus ride over. I booked the first flight back into Luang Prabang that I could find, extending my stay in Phonsavan for a couple more days.

Spoon Village

With my remaining time in Phonsavan, I had one last destination in mind before shoving off. About forty-five minutes south of where I was staying is a village named Ban Naphia, known as “Spoon Village.” The story goes that a mysterious foreigner appeared in Ban Naphia not long after the war was over. They showed the people of the village how to melt down missile casings and turn them into spoons to sell. Using a wooden mold, they poured the silver liquid of the munitions into the mold, giving it time to cool and transform into a utensil. To this day, they still practice spoon making and even chopsticks.

I rented a motorbike for the day and put the location of Ban Naphia into Gxxgle Maps. Here’s the thing about GPS abroad. At times, it will troll you. After about thirty minutes or so, I was blasting through the red dirt roads and passing small villages. The last village that I drove through was about the length of a neighborhood block. Exiting the village into an open field, I passed a large blue sign with Lao writing on it. Paying no mind to the sign, I glanced down at my GPS. It read that I was only a few minutes away from my destination. Looking out into the flat expanse, I knew it wasn’t possible that the coordinates were correct. I turned around and drove back towards the large blue sign. On the right of the sign, there was an English translation of the Lao text. Not only had I just passed through Spoon Village, but I had driven my motorbike into an area that had not yet been cleared of UXO. This is why men die off earlier than women, I thought to myself.

Feeling grateful for not getting surprise exploded, I continued back into Ban Naphia village. Besides a lone monk on a motorbike passing by here and there, it was an absolute ghost town. Sitting in plain site, In front of a modest brick shanty house, I spotted a small metal sign. It read, “XIENG PHAENG MAKESPOON FOR SALE.”. There was fencing blocking the walkway to the house, so I stood there for a few minutes, hoping that I would catch someone’s eye that lived there. Soon after, a sweet elderly woman walked out from behind the house. I asked her if I could buy some spoons and chopsticks. Nodding at me, she went back behind the house where I then saw some molds laying in the grass. She appeared again. This time with a handful of handmade spoons and chopsticks. I thanked her and bought the whole batch.

In Laos, it’s estimated that folks live on an average of two dollars a day. This is one of the many reasons they’ve become so creative with the old munitions. Whether or not the legend behind Spoon Village is true doesn’t matter. It’s quite possible that some foreigner created that tale to take credit for their own ingenuity within the village. Regardless, I’m lucky to have been able to visit such an iconic place.

While Phonsavan had more than exceeded my expectations, in the back of my head, all I could think about was going to the Hmong village for the ceremony. The next morning, I arrived at the local airport, which was more of a hangar than an airport. A half dome with all glass panelling and a small airstrip behind it. When I walked in, there were a series of booths with various airline logos on each. The airline that I booked was not one that I had heard of previously. I approached the man standing behind the booth with the airline I had booked through, and before I could open my mouth, he asked if I was Tristin Morin. The moment I said yes, I could see he had a look of concern. He asked if I could wait a few days to fly back into Luang Prabang. Of course, I couldn’t tell him I had an important meeting with a shaman the next day. Instead, I told him I had to be back asap for business and that I couldn’t postpone the flight, unfortunately. Whatever the issue was, it couldn’t have been weather related. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky while the sun beamed down onto the small glass airport.

He explained that he understood and we would continue with my flight as scheduled. Pointing to the back of the hangar, he asked me to go sit and that my name should be called shortly. This departure waiting area made up the bulk of the airport. A decent sized space, as tall as it was wide. There were maybe two-hundred or so fold-out chairs, halfway filled with people waiting on their flights. All of us sat facing the large glass paneling at the exit of the hangar with a clear view of the airstrip. Ten minutes passed, and a small plane touched down on the strip. It looked like an old Cessna. My full name sounded loudly from the intercom above. I waited a moment for others to be called, but mine was the only name being called onto the airstrip. This tiny six-seater plane was my flight? I stood up and grabbed my backpack as a staff member opened the hangar door to the outside, motioning in my direction. It felt as if everyone in the room was looking at me. Probably wondering who this asshole is that’s flying out of here on a private Cessna? Little did they know, I was thinking the exact same thing. I walked outside and boarded the tiny plane. Inside sat the pilot and his co-pilot. That was it. I realized then, they must have wanted to postpone things because nobody else had booked a flight back into Luang Prabang that day.

Sadly, the night before, I was so exhausted getting back into my hotel that I had taken the room card out of the wall slot and laid it on the table right before bed, without thinking. It was the kind of old card slot that turns off the electricity once you pull the room card out, in order to make sure the guest doesn’t leave lights and the A/C on while they’re out and about. I had drained my power bank from the Spoon Village trip earlier that day. While I plugged both my power bank and my cell in the night before, there was no power charging them at all.

All of that was to say, that in the rush to get to the airport that morning, I realized only in the taxi ride over that my cell phone was completely dead. An absolute shame, as it was one of the most remarkable flights that I’ve had to date. Flying over vast mountain ranges and diverse jungle ecosystems, marked by massive craters imprinted into the earth. To my eyes, it appeared more like a lunar landscape teeming with life. Regardless of how breathtaking, I was seeing on full ghostly display the remnants of an unimaginable tragedy.

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Sou Khuan

It was still morning as I touched down in Luang Prabang. Not wasting any time, I checked into my old hotel and made sure to plug up both my cell phone and power bank. In order to kill some time, I walked to the motorbike rental spot, then further down to grab some breakfast. Biaomin didn’t know the GPS location of the Hmong village, but he did tell me the exact length of time it would take for the drive. Approximately, an hour and a half drive by motorbike from where I first met him at the Zip-lines. All I needed to do was follow alongside the Mekong river the majority of the way. Eventually, I would reach a small corner shop that sold small bottles of gasoline on the right-hand side of the road. That was the entrance to the Yao village. I drove back to the hotel and packed a light bag for the trip.

Crossing over the Mekong and blasting through dirt roads alongside the river bank with palm trees overhead, I listened to an old SUUNS album as loud as my ear buds would allow. This was one of my favorite aspects of Southeast Asia. Long motorbike trips with a heady playlist and the tropical sun at my back. Making decent time, I passed the entrance to the Zip-line jungle. In all honesty, I wasn’t being as cautious as I normally would on dirt roads like these. I must have had enough adrenaline in my system to where I was driving as if it were a paved road. One of the “w” shaped turns caught up with me and I completely ate it. I had caught my front wheel in a groove, hidden in the dirt that wasn’t going in my trajectory at that moment. The bike was fine. I busted up my right knee and had some minor cuts to the elbow. The knee situation wasn’t serious, but I was bleeding more than I would’ve liked. I was more upset with myself than anything else.

Lifting the motorbike back onto two wheels, I was back at it. No music this time. I needed to focus and not miss the landmark. About twenty more minutes down the road, I spotted a small street shop on the right-hand side of the road and pulled over. Two women stood behind the front of the shop, both in similar dress. White shirts that extended into brightly patterned sleeves of red, green & yellow. Next to them was a display of bottles filled with glowing yellow petrol, just like Biaomin had described. This had to be it.

I purchased a bottle and filled up the bike enough to get me back into town later. Paying them for the gas, I asked if they knew Biaomin. They weren’t able to speak much English and weren’t sure what I was asking, so I asked them “Yao people?” They both smiled and nodded their heads, so I knew at the very least, this was the right village. I repeated Biaomin’s name to them a few times, each time with a slightly different pronunciation, in hopes that one would be correct. Finally, one of the girls shouted, “Biaomin!?” I nodded, “doi”. She pointed down and to the right, going into the village. I parked my motorbike next to their shop and went walking in search of Biaomin. Eventually I found him sitting with a friend, chatting in the street. He seemed genuinely surprised to see me. More than likely, he thought I was full of shit in terms of making my way back from Phonsavan to do the ceremony. This is not an unfair wager, as I’m sure many foreigners talk a lot, without much consistency to back it up.

He looked down at the dirt & blood caked around my knee, running down my leg and offered to help me clean it up. We walked a few huts down, and Biaomin disappeared behind one of the structures. Making his way back around to the front, he held a bucket of clean water. Gratefully, I rinsed the blood & dirt from my wounds. He suggested we leave soon. The shaman and his assistant were probably waiting for us. Motioning to me, I followed him into the next village over.

Entering into the Hmong village, I followed Biaomin inside a small hut. Opposite the entrance was a small table with ethereal tools strategically placed on its surface. In the center of the table sat a bowl of popped rice. Animal horns lay next to two small donut shaped brass tools, each knotted with bright red fabric, while a simple pair of scissors rested near a black face covering. Underneath the table sat percussive instruments. A large flat hand drum, a cymbal with a uniquely large bell and a large brass ring, strung with circular cut brass chimes. I noticed a green coffee mug filled with a clear liquid that I would later discover was not water, rather a strong pour of Lao Lao (a local rice wine). Above the table hung a small flag draped across an aged brick wall. This was not a traditional Hmong flag, but symbols signifying a subset of the Hmong tribe. Three crow feathers were adhered to the center of a golden airbrushed square on the surface of the fabric. Pink diamond shapes rested on the perimeter of the golden square, completing the design.

In walked the shaman’s assistant, carrying the shaman (or Txiv Neeb, in their dialect). Dressed in informal clothes and humble in his movements, he gently sat the village’s healer onto the ground floor. The shaman stood, wearing a loose fitting black robe with a red & yellow cloth tied around his waist, boasting symbolism of the Hmong flag. Under his robe, what appeared to be an ethereal basketball jersey was exposed, donning two black screaming skulls opposing one another. Sizing me up, he became sharply focused on my wounded knee. His face balled up in a discerning manner, then slowly he began to to crack a smile. Speaking to Biaomin in his native tongue, he let out a playful laugh. Biaomin translated back to me. “It is a good sign that you came today bearing blood. The spirits may look kindly upon you for the ritual.”

He began explaining to Biaomin what the ceremony represents and what the process for the day would be. Shuffling me to the back entrance of the hut, the shaman began showing me a series of sharp wooden daggers hung via twine above the entrance. Biaomin translated the meaning of the wooden daggers. “During the Sou Khuan ceremony, if the shaman finds demon spirits acting as part of your thirty-two protector spirits, he will use the dagger to cut the evil spirits away from the energy around your physical body. He will not cut into the flesh, so please do not be afraid.”

Apparently, one of the many functions of the shaman is to target malevolent spirits and absorb them into his dagger, trapping them forever underneath the orientation of the wooden fibers. Perhaps noticing my skeptic micro expressions in the moment, he delicately removed one of the daggers from its twine sheath, laying it onto the dirt. The four of us gazed down at it in silence. A minute or so passed and the wooden dagger began to show movement, vibrating and jerking every which way. Picking it back up, the shaman carefully hung it back on the twine with the rest of the esoteric daggers. Biaomin appeared quite spooked, but didn’t utter a word. Internally I was thrown, but remained as if nothing supernatural had just taken place before my eyes.

As I mentioned earlier, the Hmong have a strong Animistic belief set. They believe that the universe is divided into two absolute realms. While the physical realm is overseen largely by humans, the supernatural realm is populated by a vast cosmic array of invisible beings. A combination of both benevolent and malevolent spirits puppeting many aspects of what we see day to day on the physical plane. The goal of the shaman in carrying out various rites and ceremonies is to counter any imbalances that exist among the people within the village, as well as to appease benevolent protector spirits. Striking a kind of unity between both the physical and metaphysical realms.

We continued back to the table, where the spirit instruments still sat. His assistant stepped out for a moment, returning with three green coffee mugs. The mug already sitting on the table was for the shaman. Holding a large jug of room temperature Lao Lao, the assistant filled the additional mugs to the brim. I would argue that Lao Lao is basically Laos moonshine. We each exchanged glances and emptied our mugs. It was an instant head change, of course. The assistant gathered up the green mugs to be washed, returning soon after with a live chicken and a small wooden bench. They ushered me over to the table with the shaman, where he placed a fresh egg into the rice. The shaman was asking me to roll up the money I’d brought for the ceremony and place it into the rice, Biaomin explained. Common in these types of rituals, this is referred to as “spirit money.“ I brought the exact the amount that I planned to give, both for the shaman and to Biaomin, who was kind enough to translate and set up the entire endeavor. From my pocket, I neatly rolled the wad of Laos kip and placed it into the rice. Taking my seat at the small wooden bench, the shaman turned to manipulate the horns resting on the table. Realizing the opportunity in the moment, I quickly opened an audio recording app on my cell and hit record, sliding it underneath the bench. The animal horns on the table acted as divination horns. The shaman was using the horns to decipher whether the spirits were willing to cooperate in the ceremony before moving ahead. Nothing like greasing the wheels with a little spirit money.

He donned his black face covering and began with a series of short chants. Known as cantos or soul calling rites, this amounts to an alternating pair of two specific chants, allowing the shaman to enter the spirit realm. The assistant serves as the eyes of the physical realm, while the unseeing shaman journeys into the spirit world. As the cantos grew more and more intense, the assistant raised the live chicken above the ecstatic spectacle. Holding it gingerly, he ran a blade across its carotid artery, introducing fresh blood into the equation. I watched as he handed the chicken’s body to a villager peering in from outside of the hut entrance. His hands still coated in blood, the assistant picked up the large hand drum to play, placing the traditional tambourine-like instrument in the hands of the now blind shaman. Together, they wove a hypnotic polyrhythm. Steady and unchanging, the rhythmic pattern seemed to shift in ways that weren’t even percussive. I felt as if I was falling into some sort of mystical Bardo.

This continued on for another half hour. The assistant would switch it up with different instruments from the table while burning some combination of herbs. Smoke formed around us. The shaman no longer seemed human. His energy felt extremely supernatural, and the loose black robe that he wore seemed to be animated by something other than a physical body. Then the intensity began to slow in his chanting, as he kneeled over the coagulated chicken blood on the dirt floor. The assistant handed him a bundle of white cotton strings. The black veil still covered his face as he whispered quietly at me. One by one, he tied sixteen strings to each wrist. Using the cymbal with the unusually large bell, the assistant circled around my body, striking it with his thumb. This is the act of creating a barrier around the participant of whom had just reunited with his protective spirits. The Sou Khuan ritual was complete.

I reached under the bench to grab my cell phone and end the recording. Thanking both the shaman and the assistant for allowing me to be a part of the ceremony, I walked outside into the mid-day air. I overheard Biaomin speaking with the healers in their native tongue before turning to come check on me. According to his translation, I did not have any dark entities acting as protector spirits. However, some of my thirty-two had fallen out of alignment. The shaman told him that perhaps that was why I felt called to meet with them.

Biaomin joined me on the walk back through the Yao village and towards the exit. Still reeling from the ceremony, I attempted to explain how grateful I was for his help with everything and passed him his share of the money. He invited me to meet with his family and share in the chicken the assistant had sacrificed earlier, but I needed to get back into town and plan for the days ahead. I told him I’d keep the number he gave me, in case we ever crossed paths again. Nearing the entrance of the Yao village, my motorbike sat patiently next to the makeshift gas station, just as I had left it. I took my time climbing over the seat and soon thereafter was following alongside the Mekong back into town.

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