Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul relives memories of Vietnam through his traveling outfits. Filmed on location: Saigon, Hanoi and Halong Bay.
The days after returning from vacation, I find myself wearing some of the same items I had packed for the trip. The American Apparel v-neck yellow t-shirt may be freshly laundered, but it transports me back to sunrise over Vietnam’s Halong Bay. Despite a much needed washing, that short sleeve Lucky Jeans western shirt still has faint whiffs of noodles and mysterious herbs from a Saigon pho shop. Paired with a cup of coffee made with beans transported from Vietnam (“it’s a country, not a war” was my favorite slogan), I ease myself back into life at home with Frida and Chef. Alas, no stunning breakfast buffet from Hanoi’s Sofitel Metropole restored to its colonial grandeur. Not even a welcoming smile from Trung or Tuan, our guides from trusted gay-friendly tour operator Purple Dragon.
Here then, favorite memories—and outfits—from our recent Southeast Asia voyage. If you spot me this week, you can tell by my clothes my feelings and dreams.
Halong Bay, Vietnam. An overnight trip on a private boat through some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever experienced—truly. This was a last minute addition to our itinerary thanks to the strong recommendation of our Purple Dragon guides Trung and Tuan—the latter moved last minute heaven and earth to make it happen for us. Photographs from this collection of 2000 rock formations appear in everything from guide books to the movie Indochine—seeing them up close and personal is indescribable. Reason enough alone to make your way to Vietnam as soon as possible. Did I mention there was spectacular fresh seafood and karaoke onboard at night? Outfit: yellow v-neck t-shirt pops in pictures; Parke and Ronen swimming shorts less risqué than Speedo for early morning swim.
Pho & Banh Mi. Let’s face it, when write about food and travel with (a) Chef, eating is pretty much the centerpiece of a journey. And boy did Vietnam deliver. The traditional dish Pho—a traditional noodle soup, often with chicken or beef—differs in flavor and spices from Saigon to Hanoi—so we tried them all, and loved them all. Don’t miss Pho 2000 in Saigon made famous by a Bill Clinton visit or Hanoi’s Mai Anh near Metropole. Our guide Trung had a lot of rules about when we could eat Banh Mi (pretty much only in the morning), but ultimately took pity on us and let us buy a couple at Saigon’s Nhu Lan (run by an “old lesbian couple” he told us) and eat with our Pho. Outfit: red American Apparel v-neck or H&M white t-shirt.
Motorbikes & Golden Cock(s). Every trip, Chef and I latch onto something that we comment upon endlessly. Summer in Scandinavia, it was the never setting sun. In Vietnam, it was the motorbikes. No one walks here, everyone is on a scooter, ignoring any semblance of traffic regulation or laws of gravity—the amount that can be balanced and carried on one was awe-inspiring. Crossing the street seemed life threatening, but we followed the advice of our guide Trung, “Keep moving, don’t stop, don’t run”—sage advice applicable to many situations really. All those motorbikes just made the men seem sexier driving up to Hanoi’s gay hot spot Golden Cock—a bar that wouldn’t be out of place in New York’s East Village. Outfit: Penguin graphic TV t-shirt.
Old Quarter, Hanoi. This warren of streets, each featuring a specialized vendor—from locksmiths to shoes to fresh meat (frog legs)—was endlessly fascinating and mesmerizing. Also the perfect spot for Chef to pick-up a Vietnam communist-inspired cap. For me, an addictive Vietnamese coffee got me amped up for the chaos. Outfit: Lucky Brand short sleeve Western shirt.
Sofitel Metropole, Hanoi. One of those classic grand dame Southeast Asia hotels on par in colonial splendor and history with Grand Raffles in Siem Reap and Raffles Singapore—the latter Chef and I were asked to leave the lobby because we were not dressed appropriately in shorts. Never mind that I was trying to give them a copy of Alphabet City that features the hotel in a scene of getting locked out on the Presidential Suite’s balcony. It was one of those “my how the might have fallen” moments. Sofitel has done a meticulous job of restoring the Metropole—the dark hard wood floors made me feel like Catherine Deneuve in Indochine. Chef had a thing for the outfit worn by the lobby attendant—the hat in particular. Outfit: linen plaid short sleeve from Penguin, paired with floppy hat from Saigon’s Chinatown market.
Coffee & Bia with Purple Dragon Guides. Although it’s totally possible to navigate through Vietnam independently, Chef and I had limited time—and we wanted an insight into the developing gay scene in this burgeoning country. Gay (and gay friendly) tour operator Purple Dragon was the perfect solution. Trung in Saigon and Tuan in Hanoi were welcoming, willing to share details of life and struggles as gay men in Vietnam, flexible in our itinerary, chose outstanding restaurants and food stalls, and were the perfect companions for breaks over coffee and beer. I became addicted to the Vietnamese strong coffee sweetened with condensed milk (yum), while Chef became enamored by Bia Hoi—a draft beer made in small batches delivered that day to the establishment. When Trung found out how much we missed and adore Frida, he brought his own puppy Boy to see us off at the airport. Outfit: H&M green t-shirt and striped sailor top.
Chef. My lifetime traveling companion never ceases to amaze me with his enthusiastic embrace of all things travel. There’s not a jaded, complaining bone in this boy’s body who literally eats up all travel experiences. From the Asian menu in Japan Airlines business class (special thanks to Platinum American Express’ 2-4-1 deals) to the mysterious sausages somewhere on the road from Halong Bay, Chef dives right in with a smile. Ten years of traveling together, and he still makes me laugh and smile and try new things. We’re constantly amazed at other couples traveling together—sniping at each other, frowning. Sure, travel these days is far from glamorous and can be a bitch—but no matter how tired I am—one look at Chef’s smile is all it takes for me to see the wonders of the world through his eyes.