Pho at 6am
If you happen to be crossing many time zones, one of the first things to hit you, other than culture shock is jet lag. It’s during the first few days upon arrival that you feel the most discombobulated, kind of like coming out off of a waterslide while downing a gallon of in. It’s during this time that you fall asleep around 10pm only to wake-up around 3am. And vice versa. Feel relatively okay for a few hours when all of a sudden you turn into a moaning, withering ball of goo. Where like a toddler coming off a sugar high, may pass out anywhere; in your bowl of soup, mid crosswalk, or even at a rowdy street carnival/soccer riot. It doesn’t matter how experienced a traveler you are, jet leg will hit you hard making you feel dreadfully hungover after a night of heavy drinking while listening to the ear splitting screeching sounds of Yoko Ono cranked up to 11.
Being a fairly regular solo traveller, I’ve noticed that like getting caught in a rip tide where your better off swimming with it than fighting it, the same philosophy goes for jet lag. Until a fairly recent trip to to Tokyo, I used to employ the lizard brained fight method of dealing with it. This would usually mean I would spend the first few nights passing out too early, then waking at an ungodly hour and would proceed to roll around in bed before heading out around 7 or 8am. Then I would spend the rest of the day bemoaning my current state of affairs and obsessing about when I would no longer feel like I was in the octagon with Connor McGregor. Or I would fall asleep around 7 or 8am, wake up around 11 or 12 and bemoaning would ensue, depending on which hemisphere I happened to be in.
On that trip to Tokyo, I had a revelation. This meant when I woke up at 4am instead of rolling around trying unsuccessfully to fall back asleep only to emerge from your hotel once the general population started their day, I would immediately drag my ass out of bed and hit the road. This became a revelation because, although I was staggering a bit and it felt like my eyes had been rubbed with sandpaper, I noticed that for a few hours, I essentially had Tokyo all to my self. Granted, like getting to Disney World early, most of the rides were closed but once the trains started running, I had free reign to one of the worlds largest cities. It felt a bit like a zombie apocalypse only without the zombies. And by the time my jet lag was gone a few days later, I had seen more of the city than I would have in a week.
Traveling around cities that early, not only gives you a certain sense of freedom but it also allows you to see and experience a city from a totally different perspective than during the day. Not to mention it’s an interesting feeling to witness a city going from seemingly abandoned to fully running in just a couple of hours. It starts with the buses and trains rumbling, then onto the clinks and clanks of restaurants and business’ prepping for opening, to old people going out for their morning walk, followed by traffic and finally people spilling out of the subway on their way to work.
A couple of years after this, I had one my most memorable travel experiences while dealing with jet lag, early one morning in Hanoi. I had been to Vietnam once before the previous year but this was my first time to Hanoi. After arriving the night before, I realized I had forgotten what an attack on the senses Vietnam can be. It starts with the stifling heat and humidity that hit you like a hot, soggy beach towel as soon as you exit the airport doors. This is followed by what seems like walking into an underground cock fight where everyone is seemingly yelling and hurriedly pushing past one another to make a bet before bell rings. And lastly you’re hit by the unrelenting traffic and overall street noise that surrounds you at all times. I know this doesn’t sound like a delightful description of Vietnam but it is. It’s the sound of a living breathing organism that’s all it’s own and once you fall into it, it starts to feel like piece of classical music leading you from one place to the next.The only only hard part is, falling into it.
Having realized this from the previous year, when I woke up that first morning around 5am after sleeping little, I put on my shoes and got out of the hotel. My hotel was located in The Old Quarter which is a heavily touristed area but also has a heavy local population as well. When I got outside it was still dark and the air, although still a bit heavy, had a cool misty quality to, which along with a lack of street noise, gave the one the sense of stillness and calm. As I wandered aimlessly through the streets people were just starting to rustle about, getting set up for the days business. Not having any clear direction I was leading with my nose as much as my ears for a bowl of pho and a cup of coffee.
I knew I was close when I turned a corner the calmness I had been feeling turned more into anticipation. It seemed every other doorway had people setting up shop. One man was busy defeathering and deep frying what seemed like hundreds of tiny birds. Another man was hauling out whole pigs and slapping them down onto curbside tables while a woman with a cleaver the size of a tennis racket precisely hacked the animal up into more manageable parts. While another woman was going at a bucket of live frogs like a well seasoned field surgeon. At the end of the street on the corner, I found what I was looking for and that was a slight congestion motorbike, car and foot traffic coming and going. That’s the sign of breakfast being served.
The place had your standard Vietnamese decor of tiny aluminum tables with even tinier plastic stools in a room that could have been a motor bike maintenance center or a salon just as easily as a restaurant. When I creaked my way too tall and tired body onto a stool, most of the people were indifferent to the clumsy giant nearly dislocating his knees while just missing from kicking the table across the room, except for the grandma sitting in the corner. She’s all alone and sipping coffee, seemingly overseeing the operation but once I’m able to fold up my body without incident she sends a gentle nod my way with a little twinkle in her eye. This is then interrupted by a quick, sharp yell from a slightly agitated teenage girl who’s manning the curbside, makeshift kitchen.
She eyeballs me and gives another quick aggressive shout. In my clouded mind, I can’t tell if she’s tossing me out or just doesn’t like me? So there I am, sitting uncomfortably, looking around for help while most people are not paying attention and one laughing directly at me. The girl then looks in the back and yells at a young boy who was dozing off on a stack of crates and he staggers over and puts a picture menu in front of me. I point to the picture of pho and give the boy a thumbs up. He rolls his eyes and yells at the girl and without stopping, she knowingly nods and the boy goes back to his crates.
As I wait for my breakfast under the slime green tinted fluorescent lights, I start to notice that things overall, my surrounding are getting a bit louder and faster. Outside of the sounds of boiling water and slurping noodles, people are starting to chatter more, motorbikes are oozing into the streets and the clever chops from around the corner are becoming louder and faster. Then as I look a top near by building the sky is turning from a deep purple to a warm pink which like a green flag on a race track, is marking the start of the day.
As I’m soaking up my new surroundings, the steaming bowl of pho arrives and the old lady, now giddy, jumps from her post and comes over to demonstrate how to apply the condiments of raw sliced chilis, limes and hot sauce. As I dress my bowl, I can’t help but notice the coolness of the air dissipating and getting warmer and heavier. It’s not yet uncomfortable but you can tell it won’t be long before it will feel like a wet sponge that’s just been microwaved.
As I’m preparing to take my first slurp, I get the feeling that all eyes are on me. The old lady is waiting for happiness on my face while it seems everyone else, including the cook are hoping I’ll spit it out, while making a mess just so they'll have a laugh before they start their day. When I take my first taste I’m immediately hit with a mouth full of hell fire broth which nearly does make me spit it out and flip my table over in search of the closest glass of water like a crazed man-gorilla. But I keep my cool and just as quickly as the heat engulfed my mouth, it dissipates a little and it combines perfectly with the full flavor spectrum of savory from the beef, sour from the lime, heat from chilis and a hint of sweet. Add to that the mild/crisp green onions and herbs, along with the al dente/slick rice noodles, made me scour the walls looking for the Michelin stars.
When I looked up after my first bite with a bit of a glow and smile, grandma returned the smile and looked at her granddaughter with pride before warmly rubbing my shoulder and returning to her post in the corner. The next few minutes I spent savoring my pho as the ingredients coagulated making the broth thicker, starchier and heartier. When I was done, I popped a toothpick in my mouth and sat back with my mouth in flames, my belly full, my shirt sweated through and watched the sun rise feeling like a new man.
By the time I made it back to my hotel, the city was fully awake. The sidewalks overflowing with business, the streets buzzing with motorbikes and coffee shops packed with locals. Upon arriving at the hotel I was asked go to the dining room for the complimentary western breakfast. When I happily declined, the concierge wondered why not and when I told her I was stuffed with pho, she got happy and said with a smile, ”Oh, that’s much better.” And with that I went back to my room and happily crashed out with the excitement of what else this trip had in store for me.