Leaving Vietnam in 2009

Nov 24th was my last day in Vietnam in 2009. My stomach was a little upset, probably from some meds I was still taking for my lingering strep throat, which echoed from my last trip home to the USA.

Tien’s sisters had prepared some gifts for my family and it was a puzzle trying to fit everything into my backpack. We managed to get everything fit in, though in less of a modular fashion that I would’ve liked. I try to leave my laptop and camera easily accessible right at the top of my bag, but that wasn’t possible this time because of some very odd shapes. We settled with that though and then took a nap, trying to get a head start on rest since my flight left Saigon at 6am which meant we had to travel all night.

It’s always interesting trying to find ways to kill that last unknown bit of time before the bus shows up, and this time around I loaded up Tien’s netbook with snes9x and all the ROMs I had. Tien’s nieces had never played SNES before, but they also didn’t read english. i tried to show them how to work the emulator but hand gestures were again exhausted and I’m sure they didn’t get everything I was trying to show them. I made a note to bring them back some USB controllers so they could play together without having to share the keyboard.

The drive to saigon was the same as always except our driver was notable bad. We arrived in Saigon at 2am, practically asleep. In fact, we did sleep for a while on a bench in some garage at some transit stop where the bus had ended up. I wasn’t sure what exactly the place was, but it didn’t look like a travel agency. A man offered to give us a ride to the airport, which was nice, but he dropped us off right outside the airport instead of taking us inside so we had to catch another taxi the last 1km.

It was 3:15am when we finally got to the airport. I left Tien with my bag outside and went inside to check into my flight, which took less than 5 minutes. Tien, Thu and I sat around outside visiting for the last bit of my trip, taking photos and trying to stay awake.

When it came time for me to go, Tien and I embraced one last time and she melted into my arms. I tried to be strong and positive, but nothing prepares me for that sense of disconnection when I let go of her hand and walked away, realizing that I was then separated by a growing time and distance. It only lasted a minute though, because I had to be ready to navigate immigration and the security checkpoints.

Security was easy this time around, but required a mandatory bag inspection at the gate. This was so inconvenient after the puzzle of packing that stuff into my bag, but I managed to the contents back in with little fuss. My flight left on time, and after sleeping most of the flight away I had a beautiful and clear view of Japan on our descent into Narita. Japan is an absolutely beautiful country and I really want to go explore it some day.

I got online for a while in Narita and chatted with some folks back home. I would be arriving in San Francisco only a few hours date-wise after my departure from Saigon because of the time difference, meaning I flew out at 6am and would be landing at 8am. Kyung asked me to pick him up some Japanese kit-kat’s, and I got some mochi for Lila. I also jumped on skype and re-activated my AT&T cell phone so I would have mobile internet as soon as I landed in the USA.

On the plane to America I was seated next to a scholarly looking Japanese girl. She was studying law of some sort and asked me to keep the window shut because she was allergic to sunlight. I had ever intent of sleeping the majority of the flight away and had no qualms keeping the window closed. Usually, in fact, the flight attendants ask you to do so. I soon fell asleep listening to Kaskade, and the sleep was welcome to my confused body that probably was ready to sleep at any time of the day or night.

When I woke up I started listening to an Audiobook I had picked up, The Forever War. It wasn’t really gripping me though and I found myself struggling to follow the story rather than let my own imagination wander away. I wondered why they didn’t have audiobooks as one of the features of on-plane entertainment, and for that matter why they didn’t have podcasts. This was the terrible entertainment system from my previous flight overseas though, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the whole thing broke down to colored bars.

I put some music back on and began to wake up more, thinking about what I’d do in America. I became inspired to get my shit back on track, to do great things, to return to work and resume making money. I had taken so much time off in the last few months and was feeling an insatiable desire to get back to creative construction of art and technology. I decided to hit life hard.

Blake came and picked me up at SFO and took me down to Cupertino where Lila had my car. We went to Sugar and found my key on Lila’s desk, but she wasn’t there, so the two of us headed down to Barefoot Coffee to pacify my craving for western coffee. Barefoot is the best place to do this, by the way, because it’s probably the best coffee shop I’ve been to in the world. After western coffee the next order of business was to get a proper mexican lunch, which is another thing I can’t seem to find outside of North America. Kyung and Chris met us at Tres Potrillos in Sunnyvale and we all caught up on travels, technological bs, life and whatnot. It was great to be back with my friends in Silicon Valley.

We all went our separate ways and I headed up to Lila’s house to pick up some things I’d left there. Every time I get to her house I don’t want to leave because it’s so peaceful and beautiful, but somehow it seems that almost every time I get to her house I’m in a hurry to go somewhere else.

The drive to SF was nice, as always, and obviously very familiar since I’d done it hundreds of times before. It never gets old though, 280 between Cupertino and San Francisco is one of the most beautiful highways in America. When I got to SF my storage unit was closed, which sucked but wasn’t really a big deal. I also checked my post office box and retrieved my month’s worth of mail which did not include the receipt for Tien’s visa petition, known in the immigration community as NOA1. Later I would call them on the phone and find out that they had in fact sent it and everything was rolling along fine.

I headed a few blocks down to Crossroads Cafe where I had met the SF Flickr Social crew before my trip. It’s a quiet spot with cheap drinks and good parking. There’s no internet though, so I was happy that I’d hacked my iPhone and gotten tethering to work. Lily called me and then came down to meet me. I packed up and we went a few blocks over to Nova to get some drinks.

On our walk from the car we saw a man whose motorcycle had fallen and knocked two other motorcycles over.

It was good to see her and she caught me up to speed on a lot of the things going on in SF and in her life. She was actually on her way out of town so after a drink and a conversation I dropped her off at the BART station and headed over to the coast.

I sat there at the beach for a while, thinking about my position. No job, no home, nowhere in particular to be. This was freedom, but sometimes freedom comes with emptiness. Freedom longs for aspiration because without it stagnation pools. I didn’t want to be stagnant, but I was so exhausted I wasn’t exactly inspired either. Honestly I just wanted to chill out and relax for a while.

I called Rob and then rolled over to his house. He had just got a pizza and was ready to watch Inglorious Basterds in 1080p, and that was exactly the kind of night I was looking for. American cinema, beer and pizza with my amigo. The movie was beautiful, though a bit drawn out, but all in all it was a great time.

I headed back to the BLT’s house and nobody was home. That night I slept for 14 hours.

Heading back to Vietnam

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything, mainly because I haven’t been traveling. Espiritu del solI left Colorado and drove back to San Francisco in mid August, over two months ago. In that time I’ve mainly been focusing on two things: finishing an I-129f petition for Tien and studying and practicing flash photography. Most of that time has been spent sleeping on the floor or couch in Brianna, Lily and Terresina’s living room. I did get a sublet for a few weeks right up on top of twin peaks, and I did stay with some other friend in that time. Some people had suggested that I get a job and an apartment and prepare for Tien’s arrival in the US, but I just didn’t want to do things that way. Instead, once I finished Tien’s petition I decided to go back to Vietnam. So, here I am on Northwest Airlines flight 27 from San Francisco to Tokyo where I have a quick layover before flying to Saigon.

Honestly, the last few months have been difficult personally because my future has been up in the air and it’s been up to me to steer the direction of my life through wide open uncertain circumstances. My fiance is still in Vietnam and probably can’t enter the US for 7 more months. I’ve been wading through the US immigration system pretty much on my own. I have no job and no home of my own. There was the option of starting up a photography business of my own. For a while I didn’t even have a phone, then I realized that was ridiculous and forked over $70 a month for an iPhone plan which was extra great because of tethering. I still don’t have health insurance which led to me skipping an optional vaccination and needing to find malaria meds in VN because I didn’t find the SF Travel Clinic until last night, and I just started planning this trip 3 days ago.

Two nights ago I took the girls out for dinner as a thank you for being so hospitable and to have one last great time with them before heading out. Yesterday I took care of last minute preparations. One of the things I did was buy a pocket camera to replace the LX3 I had purchased in Saigon last time. I lost the LX3 at Lovefest after drinking a bit too much. I honestly have no idea where I lost it, but I was happy I didn’t lose my D300 instead. The camera I picked up was a $150 Samsung NV24HD. The look is what first caught my eye, then its remarkable interface, then its ability to do 60fps video and lastly its 24mm equivalent lens. A few quick googles showed happy owners so I followed the impulse and bought it. Following impulses is working out pretty good for me.

That night I headed down to Lila’s house to crash there for the night. Will had wrecked one of their cars so like last time I let her them borrow mine. This works out great because they get a car and i don’t have to pay storage costs. Lila and I took Maks to his new school in Palo Alto and then she dropped me off at SFO. My friend Blake is living out in SF now and was flying back to CO for a week, so I met up with him at the airport after checking in for my flight. We caught up on recent life details and future life strategy while he waited in an incredibly long line at the Southwest Airlines ticket counter. I left him still in it when I had to go to the international area.

At the security checkpoint I was happy to see that they had gotten rid of that lame requirement to remove your laptop. The posted signs only said to remove oxygen mask systems, full size DVD players and game systems, but no mention of laptops anywhere. My happiness at not having to unpack my bag was ended with a snide comment from a TSA agent about how I was supposed to remove my laptop for the x-Ray machine. I wished her luck when she said she was going to take it out for me, but thought again about how I needed that luck since I’d be the one repacking my bag. Stupid TSA security theater.

I bought an $8 ham sandwich and a single serving bottle of wine because I’d need to sleep on the plane. International flights may be one of the only legitimate excuses for drinking in the morning. I ate, emailed Tien, canceled my per-month iPhone plan and boarded the plane. We took off ahead of schedule and are looking at a shorter than expected travel time. Maybe I’ll catch sunset in Tokyo. Hopefully it’s not foggy like last time.

My trip was taking the same route I took last time, SF to Tokyo to Saigon. Last time I flew on All Nippon Airways and it was absolutely the best airline experience I’ve ever had. I had tried to get another flight with them, but after searching I found that United and NWA (Delta) were roughly half the cost at $680 round trip. I thought this was a fantastic deal considering I was buying two days in advance, but then I remembered the recent flood that ravaged Hoi An and other coastal towns in that region and it made sense.

Transcontinental flights are already pretty awesome with their in-flight entertainment systems in each seat, typically more room than domestic flights and meals and drinks are included in the ticket price. I wasn’t so sure how delta would stack up against Ana and was a little interested in finding out. 3 hours into my flight I have some results…

The entertainment system for the whole plane crashed shortly after I started using it. The flight attendant on the intercom said it would take 15 minutes to reboot, and it did. A sight that was familiar to me came on the screen: tux the penguin and a bunch of black and white textual technological jargon.

After a few iterations the system eventually stabilized and I was allowed the displeasure of finding innumerable bugs and limitations. The media wasn’t sortable and was not listed alphabetically. When browsing reviews, the “next” function was 4 clicks away while the default was “watch trailer”, which clearly assumes that people intend to watch trailers more than skip to the next review. The media was Aldo incorrectly linked so that clicking Forrest Gump let you watch a Honduran movie called Sin Nombre. There were 4 unhelpful listings for Delta TV that ended up being popular american television shows. The most disheartening thing was their lack of selection, there are only a handful of movies available, nothing for me to watch. The in-flight map showed that we had flown 8500 or so miles shortly after takeoff. This was accompanied by a flat map, not a globe. The “comments” link only let you take a survey and not actually leave comments, which stiles one my personal pet peeves of interface elements that say they do one thing and do something completely different. “Download now” is the worst offense of this kind on the Internet. So, yeah, big fail on the delta entertainment system unless the label it as alpha or maybe beta.

The next test was the meal. It was actually very good, but plastic silverware is wasteful and cheap. They did provide hand towels, coffee, beer and wine though, so that was also nice. All in all, not too bad.

One of the highlights o this trip is meeting up with an old room mate and coworker, David Tran. He’s a Vietnamese Parisian who is on a trip to Saigon to see his family. he’s actually in Singapore right now but will be returning on Monday which gives Tien and I some time to spend in Saigon with each other and her friend Trinh and gives me time to adjust to the time difference, find malarone and get started on that two day lead in before entering malaria infested areas.

38 hour Thursday

Thursday morning I woke up above the Pacific Ocean somewhere off the coast of Japan. I knew this because right after I saw the clouds and ocean below I looked at the helpful map showing where we were on the planet. I was given breakfast and the loudspeaker announced that we were one hour out from Tokyo.

After eating I dozed some more, opening my eyes once in a while to see what was outside my window. Blue ocean with tiny white caps under hazy clouds. Nothing but a cloud. Picturesque rice paddies that were unharvested and nobody and no boats in sight. Soon we were on the ground and I was sleepily waiting in the security checkpoint line to get back into the international terminal. I looked around at all the unfamiliar people and heard them speaking in accents, some that I didn’t recognize. I heard a japanese girl speaking in deliberate, clear english. I thought about the world and how small my world had been while I was growing up, and my world was larger than many. I still couldn’t help wondering if I’d done life a little wrong. I only traveled internationally once when I was young, and I didn’t travel much on my own volition, and usually not to new places but back to old places. I didn’t learn a second language. As an english speaker it is difficult to chose which language to master as your second, but that’s really not an excuse because two are better than one. The line was long and I had plenty of time to think about these things. Getting through security was easy and they didn’t seem to care that I had a bunch of liquids that I didn’t remove for their inspection. So much of security is theater.

I found a little office area with wired ethernet and went to work trying to find a way to get free internet. These guys had done their due diligence though and I couldn’t find any way around paying. This was a problem because last time when I tried to pay I still couldn’t get online because Boingo’s billing mechanism was broken. On top of that, the Boingo software for Mac is terrible, like so many OEM apps for Mac. They really shouldn’t bother with those kinds of things and should spend that money on something more productive.

I wandered around the airport, plodding along tiredly. It was familiar, I had spent enough time here last time that I knew where I was and where to go to get whatever. My flight wasn’t listed on the display yet though since it was too many hours away, so I just wandered aimlessly. I exchanged some money and went to an electronics shop with some stuff that isn’t available in the USA, which is just a novelty to me but still entertaining. When my flight did appear on the monitor I was 2 gates down from where I needed to be, which would’ve been really convenient if it weren’t boarding in 8 hours. I got some tea, found a power outlet and managed to successfully pay for internet access. This allowed me to kill many hours of my layover while catching up on blogging and chatting with some US folks who were up.

After sitting for too many hours I walked around the airport some more. I noticed the stark differences between Japan and Vietnam. Before landing in Tokyo I looked down at the rice paddies and it was immediately evident that we were not in Vietnam, even though there were rice paddies for as far as you could see. Japan was so clean, so quiet, so organized.

As I was walking around looking for gifts for friends a man offered me samples of sake, which I gladly tasted. It was delicious and I thought about buying a bottle, but the fact that you can’t even take duty free liquids over 100ml through Japan made me wary of what other ridiculous liquid restrictions I would encounter.

After what seemed like an eternity my plane began boarding and I watched everybody line up and get on, then when the line was nearly nothing I boarded and took my seat. I sat next to an older Japanese woman with a dignified demeanor. She began writing a note and when I glanced over my eyes picked up the word “unforgivable”. I was curious, and although I didn’t read the whole note, I did also see that she mentioned her choice of airlines by their reputation vs simply price. She folded the note up, put it in an envelope and gave it to one of the flight attendants. From then on the flight attendants would stop by from time to time and talk and talk and talk, saying “hai” over and over as this woman spoke with calm certainty. I wondered what the note actually said…

After watching some of Cirque Du Soleil’s Dralion, which has an awesome juggling scene, I switched to The Soloist and proceeded to be thoroughly unimpressed. Afterwards I managed to finally get some more sleep…

Thursday I woke up to the ongoing sounds of a boy crying. Not wailing, but genuinely crying. I realized it had been going on for quite a while and wondered why his, who was seated in the next section up, didn’t come back and help him. The first thing I saw was the darkness map of the world with our plane positioned over the pacific right on the border between light and dark. The boy’s dad eventually came back and took the boy off to the bathroom. I closed the window shades on the two windows next to me and went back to sleep. I couldn’t stay asleep though. It was an uncomfortable drifting in and out of sleep. Eventually we were landing in San Francisco and as I carried my bag off into SFO I finally woke up.

About 5 immigration people asked me if I had all my bags as they checked my passport. It seemed like they couldn’t believe that person could have such little luggage. That may have been the thing that set me apart from the rest and made them select me to a full luggage search. The guy going through my luggage also couldn’t believe that I only had one bag. He, like the passport control officer, found it hard to believe that I didn’t have a physical mailing address. The passport control officer scratched off “San Francisco” and wrote in my parents address in Colorado Springs. The man searching my bag asked me “Why did you write down Colordo Springs if you live in San Francisco?” to which I replied that I did not write down c/s. It seems so simple, move out of apartment, quit job, live out of a backpack, yet so many people don’t understand until they stop to think about it.

Sara was supposed to pick me up but I wondered if she’d even be there after my flight was late and my time was wasted while the LEO did a half search of my tightly and intricately packed backpack. She was though and it was great to have a friend there to whisk me away in a sleek automobile. We headed down 101 to Mountainview to meet up with some of the SugarCRM crew. Pretty much the whole local IT team plus Kyung showed up and we filled a nook in the restaurant with loud friendly conversation. Sara had to go and I was bummed that we didn’t have long enough time to catch up with each other.

After lunch I caught a ride back to Sugar where Lila had brought my car. I sat and talked a while about my travels and the way that poor countries and technology fit together, then headed up to Lila’s house to pick up some stuff I’d left there. When I got there I took a shower, which was great because I had been out for over 36 hours without a shower. I also tried to take a nap but couldn’t sleep, so I decided to head on up to SF.

As soon as I started driving I got sleepy. Luckily I’d driven this route a few hundred times so I could drive it comfortably while sleepy. It was lame though, I didn’t want to drive that route. I had quit my job partly because of that drive. Between that drive and the SugarCRM HQ I felt like my old life had been severed and I was having to pick it back up to get to something underneath it. I just wanted to let it go and move on, those times were gone.

The first place I went in SF was to my mailbox which hadn’t been checked in two months. All of the mail fit into the box, so it wasn’t too bad. The post office is right downtown SF, near embarcadero, and it was nice to submerge myself back into the heart of SF, like jumping straight into a pool to help you get used to the water quicker. The weather was kinda bad, breezy with a little rain, but it was familiar and that was great. The air was cool and clean, so different from anything I’d experienced in the previous two months. I also heard seagulls for the first time in two months.

Then as I was driving to the Sunset I witnessed the first crime I’d seen in two months. I thought about how I hadn’t felt threatened in any way in Asia at all. The worst thing I’d encountered were animals and the fear of getting ripped off by agreeing to an inflated price, but I hadn’t been scared fo being mugged or anything while I was there. I was sad that it took less than an hour for me to witness a crime in SF. I love this city and honestly I don’t see that much crime here, so that was a bit of a slap.

Right as I was getting to Golden Gate Park I remembered the microclimates of San Francisco, and even though it was somewhat warm downtown it sure as hell wasn’t warm by the ocean. I turned around and drove all the way back downtown and went to my storage unit to get my jacket and picked up some other gear while I was there, including some camera gear I hadn’t played with in a long time.

The ocean was vibrant and the horizon had a crisp line as I drove to Java Beach to get coffee and internet. I didn’t stay long because Rob told me to meet him at Noriega Pizza, so I headed down there. We talked a little bit and it was good to see a great friend, but I had a hard time saying a lot of stuff about my trip because I still need time to process it. Maybe… maybe this is as good as it’ll get and I should just blab about it without thinking too hard. At any rate we had good convo and then headed to Sea Biscuit to meet up with Rob Taylor so they could record a podcast for (d)NOT.

I don’t know if it’s just the fact that I can understand the language, but I think that San Francisco has more doers than other countries I’ve visited. Aside from Rob and Rob recording their gig in a coffee shop with friendly and familiar folks walking in and out catching up with the latest goings on, I’ve seen a lot of other people around already that look like they’re up to something fun. There is a cool energy in San Francisco that I really really like. Some of it is the natural energy of the city, and on top of that there is the sentimental aspect, the familiar places with so many good memories tied to them. I was really really happy to be back.

We dropped Rob Taylor off at home and headed back to Rob’s place and geeked out with laptops, linux, Star Trek and a sip of whiskey.