#6 : Vietnam & The Hospital Cave incident
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.
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.
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.