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This is it, friends. We’re at the end of my southeast Asia photos, which means I’ll have to come up with new and clever posts for 2010. Oh no!

After Jeanette and I parted ways in Phnom Penh, I boarded a six-hour bus to Ho Chi Minh City, where I found myself completely alone in a new place for the first time since my trip to Shanghai in May. The previous six weeks had prepared me for Vietnam–I knew how to move from city to city, how to befriend strangers and how to seek out good, cheap food. I didn’t, however, know how to get off of a moto. (There are no pictures of the infamous leg burn, but next time you see me, ask to see my leg.)

The trip began in Ho Chi Minh City, where I didn’t take nearly enough photos. In fact, I only took two. And one was of a froyo chain.

The Reunification Palace, formerly known as Independence Palace. It was here that power was handed from the South Vietnamese to the North during the Fall of Saigon in 1975.

I left Ho Chi Minh City and headed to the central Vietnamese city of Hoi An, where I went to town getting custom-made clothing.

James and I headed down to the river, only to find the streets flooded, a result of Typhoon Mirinae. Just past the two men hoisting up their pants stands the bridge, partially submerged by the rising water.

Getting fitted for my coat. My look of shock was not at the lady measuring me, but at a particularly gorgeous fabric that Rach (the photographer) was holding up.

Rachel selecting fabric for her jacket.

Vietnamese coffee is seriously underrated, says the girl who hated coffee until this trip. Aesthetics may have played into my newfound appreciation for coffee. Can you blame me?

Then onto Hanoi, but not before a harrowing plane ride and subsequent guesthouse-searching at 2 a.m.

Night market in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam.

Hell hath no fury like a Vietnamese motorist. Taken from a pedicab wedged in between a car and a motobike.

The prison where John McCain was held for several years during the Vietnam War.

Old meets new in Hanoi.

My last photo from my trip, taken just a few hours before my flight. The rooftop cafe we sat at overlooks the Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of the city.

And that does it for my photos. Here’s hoping for many more trips (and subsequent photo posts) in 2010! New Orleans, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico are on deck…

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“It’s a funny thing about coming home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You’ll realize what’s changed is you.”
 
Well, I’m home. The original plan, crafted over the summer, was to come back to New York to surprise my sister just before the show she’s producing at Marist. Until a few hours ago, she thought I wouldn’t be getting home until after Thanksgiving. Oh, the lies I tell. After some last-minute planning, I decided to spend the last few days of my trip in Hawaii, visiting my friend Sumner in Honolulu. The 25-hour trip would take me from Hanoi to Seoul and Tokyo before finally getting to Hawaii. To say that’s anything less than a great schlep would be lying.
 
I arrived in Seoul at 5 a.m. only to learn that the next part of my journey, the two-hour flight to Tokyo, had been canceled. No explanation was given, and for the next five hours, I had to wait around Incheon for someone from United Airways to help me. I was finally assisted by the most adorable Korean woman who spent a good 45 minutes trying to sort me out. She gave me two new options to get to Hawaii, but neither of them were particularly good. One had me getting to Hawaii the next night, further elongating my journey and cutting down on necessary beach time. The other had me going through San Francisco, then back to Hawaii, which was also unattractive as I didn’t really want to go thousands of miles east only to fly halfway back across the ocean. In the end, she booked me a flight to New York.
 
The wheels were down at JFK 24 hours and 10 minutes after she handed me my ticket. Despite nearly 40 hours of hassles, turbulence and lackluster plane food, I was in high spirits as I met my parents. By the time we got to Kingston around midnight, my body was starting to feel the effects of sleep-deprivation. (I slept, in total, three hours over the course of the trip. And that’s not including the full day I’d spent touring Hanoi before getting my 11 p.m. flight. to Korea.)
 
The first day back was low-key. I treated my stomach to old friends, a whole-wheat bagel and hummus, before unpacking a few things. Went to Mizuna Cafe uptown for lunch. (Highly recommended: the chicken, spinach, tomato and brie wrap.) A quick trip to town hall and an official job offer preceded a visit to my high school mecca, the Hudson Valley Mall. Picked up a few things that were non grata in Asia and gave a smile to the Target security guard, who didn’t recognize me. Still not sure how I feel about that one.
 
Next up, Hannaford. I was nervous to go to an American supermarket. Everyone talks about his first visit to a grocery store after a stint abroad, and now I understand why. I stood in the deli section, gripping my cart for stability as I stared in awe at the hummus selection. Garlic hummus, artichoke hummus, chipotle hummus, pine nut hummus, red pepper hummus. And that’s not even half of the selection. I had forgotten what it’s like to have anything I want at my fingertips, to not even know how much I wanted something until it was right in front of me. At that moment, I wanted it all. This only grew when I walked five feet to the cheese section. I had to peel myself away, but vowed to return.
 
I called Rachel during the hummus debacle, and she kept me company on the phone for the rest of my shopping. I panicked when I couldn’t find the aisle with mac and cheese, but a friendly shelf-stocker pointed me in the right direction (away from “Pasta” and toward “Packaged food”). By check-out, half of my cart was mac and cheese, the other a random mixture of turkey bacon, Indian food and vegetarian baked beans (beans on toast, easily my new favorite breakfast).
 
Dinner was at the Bowery Dugout, where I satisfied a long-standing craving for French onion soup. After dinner, I headed up to Woodstock to surprise a certain best friend of mine at work, who happened to be under the impression that I was in Hawaii. Tor’s parents had swung by the store to drop off some food, making my timing even better. As I hugged the Burhans fam, Tor just stared at me, her eyes and mouth opened wide in shock. As her parents walked outside, her mom shouted, “Melissa–mac and cheese, champagne, root beer floats, Law and Order: SVU–whenever you want it, just let us know.” Ah, Mrs. Burhans knows a few of my favorite things. Indeed, all of those things were had at my going-away dinner last year, or as Tor accidentally blurted out, “when we got rid of you.”
 
After Surprise #1 was the long-awaited Skytop Trivia Night. I was determined to kick some ass, but it was not meant to be. What was meant to be, however, were several Absolut and grapefruits. Jerry and the Pacemakers didn’t win, but I have a good feeling about next week. Really, I do.
 
I’m now on my way to see my sister, who I’m fully expecting to bawl for a few hours after I surprise her. After that, I’m off to Poughkeepsie to visit my grandmother. Tonight is a party at the Dugout, a Sam Adams beer-with-every-course deal that I’ve been looking forward to.
 
It’s been a bit odd to come home. Same town, same house, same family–but all a bit different than when I left it. Physically, I’m sort of adapting. (That is, if you call shivering in a sweater and winter coat when the temperature is 60 degrees adapting.) I’ve somehow avoided jetlag, which is absolutely shocking, considering southeast Asia is a full 12 hours ahead of New York. So far, my digestive system has been receptive to the absurd amounts of dairy I’ve been putting down, and for that I am most grateful. I’m incredibly allergic to my cat. Having been away from animals for so long, my body is in rebellion at the moment. Constant Benedryl and inhaler use has been getting me through the days.
 
Kingston is going to take a bit of getting used to. I’ve lived alone since leaving for Korea. It’s weirder still not having my sister around. Even though Marist is only a half-hour drive, she feels an eternity away. My days of promoting Kingston are over, but I’m hoping my new job will be just as fun. (And if not, at least it’s only two minutes away–and that counts for a lot up here in winter.)
 
Home feels good. After nearly 14 months away, this is where I need to be, at least for right now. I’m already looking for jobs, both in Washington and New York. Any leads would be appreciated (thanks already to Carla, who has e-mailed me several openings in the past few weeks). Next week I’ll head down to Washington to catch up with friends and celebrate my birthday. The weeks after that are a mix of holidays things, family get-togethers and hanging around Keegan Ales. Is my beer of choice, Super Kitty, out yet?
 
I sincerely thank all of you for reading, commenting and encouraging me to keep this up. It’s been a whirlwind of a year, and I’m struggling to believe that it’s over. Having this blog was a good way to keep track of my thoughts and keep my head straight. I’m not sure what I’ll have to blog about anymore, but I’m sure I’ll find something…after all, my life doesn’t stay quiet for long.

Hanoi, Vietnam

The last time I posted, I was in Ho Chi Minh City. Two flights and an amped-up wardrobe later, I’m in Hanoi. To quote my mother, circa two months ago, “You’re going to Hanoi? Isn’t that in North Vietnam? Are you even allowed there?”  Indeed I am. We may have lost the war, but not our rights as frivolous, money-spending tourists.

But before I got to Hanoi to blow my hard-earned Korea money, I detoured to Hoi An, a town on the central coast about halfway between HCMC and Hanoi. What is there to do in Hoi An, you ask? Well, to be honest, not a whole lot. Unless you are me, or any other clothes-conscious human being in which case, Hoi An is nothing short of the happiest place on earth. Passing by shop after shop of silky fabrics and bright colors, I thought I had reached nirvana. Or heaven. Something along those lines. I held off on shopping on the first day, and instead grabbed dinner with new friend James. To wind down from the day of traveling, we each ordered a bottle of wine and a couple mojitos. The rest of the night passed in a blur, though I do remember coming back to my room just before 10 p.m. (I think that just about sums up Hoi An’s nightlife, doesn’t it?), turning on Sex and the City and promptly falling asleep.

The next morning I met James at a cafe down the street and promptly ordered some coffee to sooth the bombs that were exploding in my head. While eating breakfast, I saw Korea friend Rachel walking down the street! I knew she was planning to get to Hoi An that day, but I didn’t expect to see her straight away. We spent the afternoon going from shop to shop, being sweet-talked by store owners, choosing fabrics and styles and having measurements taken. By the time we met up with James and some of Rachel friends for dinner, I had more than a dozen villagers working on my orders, ten on my winter coat alone.

The next day was a race to pick up everything, have it refitted and cram it all into a spare duffel. I ended up leaving Hoi An with a winter coat, three dresses, a skirt and a pair of suede ankle boots that I designed myself. Like I said, this place was heaven.

It was a bit of a struggle to get to Hanoi, as my 10:05 p.m. flight was delayed more than an hour due to technical issues, not getting us to the Vietnamese capital until half midnight. It didn’t help that take-off was a bit bumpy. I spent the first 20 minutes clutching the hand of a very nice Vietnamese guy, convinced I was going to die. Thankfully, he didn’t mind, and ended up being a wonderful seatmate. Once I released his hands, he showed me pictures from his recent wedding and honeymoon, then asked if I had a boyfriend. When I said no and tried to explain that it’s hard to see someone when you’re constantly on the move, he said, “Some girls…like girls. You?” Because obviously, if you haven’t got a boyfriend, you’re a lesbian. (I tried the opposite today, and told the moto driver that I was traveling with my boyfriend. Then he asked me how many times a night I slept with said boyfriend. There’s no winning this one. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.)

I shared a taxi into town with a couple of Aussies, the only other westerners on my flight. After they were dropped off at their hotel, I showed the cab driver where I needed to go, only to find that at 1:30 a.m., most decent places to stay have closed for the night. Imagine that! After driving to several Lonely Planet-recommended places and finding the same thing at each one, we returned to the hotel where the Aussies were staying, only to learn that my new friends had snagged the last room. The guy at reception motioned to his friend on a moto outside, who took me to another guesthouse, where I’m paying an outrageous $28 a night for a room. But it’s only for two nights and there’s free Internet and breakfast, so I’m sucking it up.

The only major bummer so far has been my burn, which I accidently hit against the moto last night as I was climbing off, peeling back all of the healing skin and leaving me hobbling around Hanoi. Showering this morning was excruciating, but after I cleaned up and dressed the burn and popped a couple Tylenol, walking around was bearable.

I’ve already checked out the Old Quarter and the area around the lake in the middle of the city. Was planning on seeing the prison where John McCain was held during the war, but I think I’ll save that for tomorrow. Today seems like a nap and cafe day, and I’m perfectly fine with that. Vietnamese coffee is easily the best I’ve ever had. I’m not sure if I’m finally developing that inevitable taste for coffee that all adults seem to have, but I’ll give the old Maxwell House a shot when I get home.

I think it’s time to part ways with the free Internet and take the elevator up to the third floor. I haven’t been on an elevator in nearly two months, so the idea is fairly exciting. Almost as exciting as napping, which will be plenty useful after several restless, five-hour nights.

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