By Brian Spencer
As lunch was served at Quan An Ngon, I was reminded that it’d been nearly seven years since I first visited Hanoi.
In 2006 it was one of the first stops on my first trip to Southeast Asia, a trip that took me from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, then to the north of Vietnam, beginning in Hanoi, and down the coast on planes, trains, and automobiles through Hue, Nha Trang, Mui Ne, and finally Saigon. It was a fairly typical itinerary then as it is now, but the volume of travelers who’ve taken similar trips and will take them in the future doesn’t water down the impact those few weeks had on my life.
I grew up traveling extensively in the United States with my family. My travels abroad, however, began later than they did for many of my friends and peers when, in 2003, age 24, my passport was stamped for the first time in Berlin (a visit that prompted my first earnest stab at travel writing). With an assist from the best job benefit of my life to date — $500 in travel money and a free vacation day every quarter — I made up for my somewhat late start fairly quickly, traveling to Vancouver, Oslo, Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro, Amsterdam, London, Dublin, and Buenos Aires over the following 2.5 years.
My then-girlfriend was with me for most of these travels. Travels that, inevitably, taught us so much about each other; travels that changed us together and gave us shared experiences in new corners of the world; travels that tested us and brought us closer together. We now look back on those travels as a married couple, and can’t believe how much we look like kids in the photos.
That was an important, formulative time in my mid-twenties, one that gave me direction in both my personal and professional lives. It was around then when I completely stopped writing about music, which after years of CD reviews and band interviews had begun to feel formulaic and stale, and began exclusively writing about my travel experiences. For the first time in my life, I also — finally — began thinking about the act of writing itself.
Towards the end of my college years, my (very amateurish) work was being published in the college newspaper, local entertainment weeklies, music websites and, after graduation, a handful of culture rags in New York. Back then, things like word choice, tone, style, form, and structure weren’t of great concern; until then, I just wrote what came naturally and, arrogantly, assumed it was good enough. As I began traveling, however, I began attaching a greater importance to my work. I realized that to give my treasured experiences the justice they deserved in print, I’d need to exercise greater restraint and deeper meditation on my writing. I’d need to start doing a better job of doing what all successful writers do.
My work is still (obviously) a work in progress. I still struggle more than I’d like to admit, and sometimes I feel like I may never get the shapeless “it”. I have a long, long way to go, but I do, at least, have a better, still-developing understanding of the thought process and considerations necessary for good writing to happen (and I can thank my wife for kindly reminding me of it whenever I get frustrated with my work).
While those mid-twenties travels gave me direction, that first trip to Southeast Asia in 2006 gave me a completely new perspective. Like it has to so many before me and to so many since, the region stuck its claws in and didn’t let go. After that extended adventure in a land so new and exciting and challenging — and with so many more places to see in just this small region, nevermind the greater expanse of Asia — we returned home no longer content with settling for periodic four – or five-day jaunts. We schemed and plotted for the next-possible return, and made it happen a little over a year later, this time for five weeks in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Burma.
That still wasn’t enough, so another year later we went back, this time for an eight-month residency in Bangkok. Packing our bags and leaving our dream life after eight months — this was the first time my then-girlfriend and I had lived together — was extremely painful. We resolved to do it again, and did, for about six months in 2011. Leaving was no easier than it was the first time, of course, but we again promised ourselves to return, and last year, the stars aligned for us to move to Singapore, three years minimum. It’s not Bangkok, but it’s Southeast Asia, and it’s so far, so good, for now.
Buried memories of that first trip to Southeast Asia — that first trip to Hanoi and Vietnam nearly seven years ago — flashed through my head as a plate of fresh, happy Vietnamese greens and rice paper was placed in front of me at Quan An Ngon. It was followed by a plate of pounded shrimp hash, caked around stalks of sugarcane and placed on a bed of flattened rice vermicelli. It was my first time at the Hanoi branch, but I’d eaten at the original one in Saigon many years ago, and though the layout differs, the concept, execution, and spirit between the two locations is essentially the same.
Our server returned to the table with a pair of scissors to snip the shrimp paste off the sugar cane stalks. I tore into the aromatic bunch of greens, sprinkling them in the inside fold of a rice paper sheet. A few lean chunks of shrimp were next, then thin slices of cucumber and starfruit. I rolled it all up, dipped it in the sweet, tangy sauce, and took a bite.
And I remembered my first time at Quan An Ngon, when as a stubborn vegetarian I restricted myself to tofu and vegetables. (Now I’m just a stubborn pescetarian.) I remembered pounding mugs of beer at an atmospheric Hanoi bia hoi located down a dank, dirty alleyway. I remembered biking down a dirt road in the Hue countryside, a young boy pedaling next to me, trying to scratch off one of my forearm tattoos. I remembered getting scorched by the midday heat on the blinding white-sand beach in Nha Trang, and falling for the cyclo-ride scam in Saigon. Writing postcards in the lobby of the Saigon Central Post Office.
It’d been a long time since I last tasted Vietnam, but over lunch at Quan An Ngon, the gap suddenly felt like a short one.