It all started in August, on the not-so-glamorous platform of West Oakland BART station. The only indication of the adventure to come was our “Explore!” bag tags hanging on our suitcases. By the time we stepped up to the Asiana check-in desk, we had already been transported into Asia when the stewardess bowed to us respectfully. The plane was the nicest I’d been on in a while; the seats looked like they had been taken out of a grandma’s living room, the food was an American-sized portion of Korean barbeque and rice, the individual televisions were remote controlled, and to top it all off free slippers were provided. After ten hours of flying, the first things to greet us at our layover in Seoul, Korea were a Dunkin’ Doughnuts, Caribou Coffee and Starbucks. The bathrooms were chambers of technological wonder with intriguing “Etiquette” buttons, automatic seat covers, and even a sink two feet above the ground either designated for toddlers or mini-me’s.
We arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam on Friday at 12:02 am, two days having passed since we left San Francisco. Our taxi ride to the “Army Hotel” was as if we had involuntarily stepped into Crazy Taxi, the way the driver swerved and sped past every car on the road. It was all the worst parts of American driving with none of the good bits. Maybe it was two days of travel, or the dark and early hours of the morning, but by the time we pulled up to the lobby our faces resembled the expression of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” our nerves were shot.
The more practical hours of the day were spent wandering the newest quarters of Hanoi, sampling pho, bean paste buns, iced coffees and fresh, green mango juice. The humidity got straight to work, expanding my hair to twice its already mega volume. A typhoon whirled its way into the city midday and, by evening, rain was bashing its way into our bedrooms. Walking to dinner during a slight calm, trees had been uprooted in the park, and roots stuck out in the sidewalk. We ended the day, on a whim, at the Vietnam National Orchestra’s performance of Rachmaninoff’s best. The storm had conveniently decided to give us that just "stepped out of the shower" look on our walk to the concert hall. By the time the first violinist was tuning the orchestra, we were dripping in our seats, resembling wet cats, and focusing more on staying awake than his First Concerto.
For Saturday lunch we sat down on miniature plastic chairs at a table where one would expect to see teddy bears and baby dolls enjoying their afternoon tea, overlooking a lake. Peanut shells sprinkled the floor and the table beside us was surrounded by drunken locals passing around two jugs of beer. The waiter didn’t speak a word of English, so he handed us his iPhone where he had pulled up a translation app. As we were brought our food, that we had decided to randomly select off the Vietnamese menu after the app failed to recognize our language, the group next to us stumbled to their motorbikes and drove off, two to a bike, without helmets. Somehow I didn’t think my parents would go for a moped ride after that.
My brother and I were a bit desperate to get back to the hotel. Today was the day we would meet our group companions. Our expectations were high and running wild after the amazing people we had met on our trip to Turkey just a summer before. We scampered back to the hotel after our parents had finished that one last sip of beer that seems to stay in adults' glasses for a particularly long amount of time.
We walked into the meeting room with that sort of animated nonchalance that some seem to adopt when meeting new people. We were introduced to our tour leader, Son, a friendly Hanoi local with a slightly British tint to his English. The four families of the group went around the table stating their names, ages and where they lived. Of the eight teens on the trip, there were only two girls: myself, and a well-dressed 17-year-old who would come to be known as JoMama, and was later revealed to be a successful singer in a rock group called Indecisive Crisis, giving her an unfair advantage when we ventured to a karaoke bar further into the trip. Not unexpectedly, my family members were the only Americans, and I decided that if conversation was slow at dinner, we could always resort to comparisons on the pronunciation of water, butter, and tomato, a reliable source of entertainment in any foreign country.
That night the teens had already begun to bond over noodles and mango juice. Since their names had escaped me, every time I wanted to ask someone a question I had to make sure my eye contact was precisely on target to avoid exposing my amnesia. As a result, upon returning to our room, my brother and I nominated nicknames to each kid on the trip. Little did I know, the next ten days would develop them into companions I will never forget and bring experiences only possible in the enchanting world of Vietnam.