A Fighter’s Tour: Food, Sights and MMA in Vietnam

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A big part of my gig here at MMAmania.com for the previous five years has been recapping my own martial arts experiences and mixed martial arts (MMA) career. From my first fight as an amateur in 2014 at the age of 18 to my second professional win back in July, I’ve written about each step of the journey and tried to take readers along for the ride as best as possible.

In the seven months since my July victory (LINK), however, it’s been radio silence. A few days after that bout, I received test results from a recent MRI confirming I had an acoustic neuroma: a benign tumor inside the inner ear. For the concerned, it was no result of head trauma, more pulling one in 100,000 bad odds. Google the term if you’d like more info, but the short version is that I had to have it removed surgically in a procedure that qualifies as neurosurgery.

After a few months of waiting on referrals, my two teams of surgeons at UC Davis Medical in Sacramento, Calif., successfully removed the tumor in an 11-hour procedure near the end of Nov. 2018.


Post-Surgery Swollen Head

That’s a great result for me, but one with consequences, too. As a result of the acoustic neuroma, I have no hearing in one my ears. To be frank, I don’t find it to be a big deal. There was also the issue of balance, as I had to retrain my brain against vertigo and learn to walk normally again. I figured most of that out in the first week, though, so the bigger issue for me came in the form of recovery. Shockingly, medical experts are against the combination of brain surgery and combat sports … at least right away. After surgery, I was scheduled a significant amount of recovery time before being allowed back in the gym. Nearly three months post-surgery, I’m still forced to be wary of Intracranial Pressure, only allowed to do certain exercises and drills despite looking and feeling perfectly healthy.

At six weeks, though, I was allowed to fly.

I’m not one for melancholy, so before surgery I realized the opportunity here. In my more than nine years of martial arts experience, I had never taken more than one week away from the gym — usually the week after a fight, as I only do my strength and conditioning workouts in an attempt to recover from camp and the fight itself. Unasked for or not, I suddenly had a pretty big window of non-gym or severely limited gym time available. I wasn’t going to waste it.

Six weeks and one day post-surgery, my girlfriend Jordan and I boarded the 14-hour China Airlines flight from San Francisco, Calif., to Taipei, Taiwan, the main connecting airport en route to Hanoi, Vietnam. To answer the inevitable, “Why Vietnam?” queries, there are a few reasons.

  1. Since the beginning of our relationship, Jordan and I both shared a dream of traveling to Asia. We made a whole list of travel goals at one point, and the top of that varied list was actually a mutual vote for Japan. Which brings us to reason #2 …
  2. Expense. Our vacation had to be cheap; I am an MMA fighter, remember? With that, our scope narrowed a bit to South East Asia. Sadly, I had to save Thailand for the future, too, because going to homeland of Muay Thai without kicking things would be a true sin.
  3. Food. Jordan and I love the Vietnamese food we’d have in the States, and Vietnam is well-known for its delicious and cheap street food.
  4. Anthony Bourdain: The travel host, author, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt loved Vietnam and described visiting as a life-changing experience. I’ve read three of his books — including this piece’s partial namesake A Cook’s Tour on the plane ride over — and they did a great job of convincing me.

Within five minutes of finding my seat on the 747, I was trying to keep my laughter quiet. China Airlines is not an American company and thus does not force its staff to tolerate the usual buffoonery we all endure on flights. The stewardesses sped around the plane, appearing and disappearing behind curtains, emerging from any angle to reprimand idiot passengers for trying to open bags in the aisle or sitting in the wrong seat. Any level of incorrect behavior — from the accidental to the obnoxious — was shut down with a quick “Stop!” or “You will sit!” There was no forced customer-service politeness, only blunt efficiency. It was hilarious to watch.

I think I’d do well in Singapore (ONE FC hit me up!).

MMA in Vietnam

After about 24 hours door-to-door, we arrived at our Airbnb in Hanoi. We had about 20 minutes to help the host rewire a light bulb and get dressed before our scheduled tour with some local college students would arrive. It’s a great program: the college students make a couple bucks and get a chance to practice their English, while tourists get an educational tour from actual locals (LINK).

In an unexpected twist, the tour also granted me the MMA tie-in necessary for this article. My career posts tend to run at a ratio of about 80 percent fighting and 20 percent me — be it tattoos or post-fight celebrations or some interesting event that occurred in the lead up, I try to interject some personality to avoid creating too generic of a “Got in a fight last night … and dominated!” post that any fighter could write.

But, I wasn’t allowed to do MMA on the trip. Going to Thailand and kicking pads? That’s a post that writes itself. Vietnam is not internationally known for a combat sports culture, though, nor would I be able to participate if it was.

Luckily, I found out early on the tour that one of our guides, Duy, is a giant fight fan. I didn’t intend to bring up my career as a fighter — be wary, for folks who immediately blab about their fighting career without provocation are generally to be avoided at all costs. However, Duy asked how we came to be in Vietnam, which lead to the whole surgery conversation and how I had to take time off from my career, a career I simply described as physical work. When Duy asked further, I had to spill the beans.


Duy asked for a face-off pic at the end of our tour. Kindly ignore the fact that I’m wearing the same shirt in half of these pictures, we didn’t check any bags.

“Have you ever heard of UFC?” is generally my go-to opening phrase for figuring out how to explain my fight career, and immediately Duy was pumped.

“Bro, I love UFC! On Youtube, I watch all the Embedded episodes!” Realizing I had a real fight fan on my hands, I backtracked and began explaining that I’m not in UFC, but Duy was already way ahead of me. We talked being an unsigned fighter (poverty), the work that goes into preparing for a fight (a lot), and whether or not everyone is on steroids (not in my experience). When he found out I was a member of Team Alpha Male, I got hit with the immediate, “What’s the real story with Cody and T.J.?!?” We talked about the upcoming super fight between between Dillashaw and Henry Cejudo, which I actually watched on the plane ride back to the states.

I had questions for him as well. Is there an active MMA scene in Vietnam? The couple Google searches I did prior to the trip revealed little, other than at least one MMA gym existing in Ho Chi Minh City. Duy explained to me that an MMA gym had recently opened in Hanoi, and that there was a popular jiu-jitsu academy nearby as well.

Here in North America, it’s easy to get cynical in regards to UFC’s supposed expansion. “Fastest growing sport on the planet!” is repeated ad nauseam and seems to directly contradict the crappy television ratings that frequently bounce back from random events with no major headliner. It’s easy to forget countries like Vietnam, who may not have a representative in the Octagon yet but is beginning to host events more often and develop new fight teams.

Among his generation, fighting really is a sport of growing popularity.

Food in Hanoi

For the food and travel bits of our stay in Hanoi, pictures are superior to lengthy descriptions.


Bun Cha is Hanoi’s signature dish. A sweet, vinegary broth is served with all the fixings on the side: patties of fatty pork, green papaya, hot red chiles, fresh herbs, and a giant helping of cold rice noodles are to be thrown into the bowl in whatever portions you prefer.


“Oc,” or river snails, sauteed in tamarind sauce at the tiny blue table of a street side Bia Hoi (fresh beer) stop.


A staple of cafes, egg coffee features an egg white blended with sweetened condensed milk and poured into hot coffee, creating a rich, sweet mixture.


Banh Mi Op La: In Vietnamese, Banh Mi means both the sandwich and the baguette itself. In this case, it’s a crunchy baguette served with a fried egg as well as a side of chili-soy sauce.


Immediately after the Banh Mi, we squeezed in another breakfast of Pho, the classic Vietnamese beef noodle soup, at a quick chain restaurant.

For more than six decades, the French colonized Vietnam as part of French Indochina, and the result — besides years of brutal oppression and a hard-fought, bloody revolution in the ‘40s and ‘50s — is a lasting influence on the country. Many of the country’s most famous landmarks and government feature beautiful French architecture. Common Vietnamese street foods like the Banh Mi and Banh Xeo (a sizzling egg crepe) show obvious French influence. Perhaps most telling is the national coffee culture: coffee is sold on every block, whether in thousands of small cafes or from a cart on the side of the street. Both are busy late into the night, well past when American coffee shops have shut their doors.

Another lighter consequence of the French occupation is a high number of amazing French restaurants. Late Saturday night, we made an impromptu stop at La Badiane, an acclaimed restaurant in the French Quarter of Hanoi. The original plan was to do lunch on Sunday (cheap!), but a Google search while walking the alleys revealed them to be closed Sunday. The prices may have been higher, and we may have been dramatically under-dressed, but this was our one chance.


A pan-seared breaded sea bass with mushroom and red wine sauce — the single best piece of fish in our collective lives.


A similarly delicious crab risotto with Parmesan emulsion

Sights

Sadly, our trip only allotted about two total days to explore the city of Hanoi, which was far from enough. We sacrificed two days of our time in northern Vietnam to visit Halong Bay, a fantasy landscape of tall limestone islands jutting out of a grass-colored bay. It’s a massive attraction and commonly appears on lists of natural world wonders. It’s a place you simply can’t miss.


Ha Long Bay, Vietnam


A three hour bus ride from Hanoi covers about 110 miles of travel to the bay. The most popular way to experience Halong Bay is via small cruise ship, and we opted for the overnight tour. While on board, we did a cooking lesson, kayaked, saw an oyster pearl farm, and explored a deep cave.


Top deck


A cloudy sunrise at Hoan Kiem Lake. In the heart of Old Quarter, Hanoi, locals gather early in the morning to do Tai Chai, dance classes, and exercise by the water.

On the weekends, the streets around Hoan Kiem Lake are shut down. Instead, the streets are filled with new food stands, a giant screen showing the national soccer team’s game, and children riding around in dozens of remote controlled cars.


The narrow, busy streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter


Our guides’ motorbikes in front of West Lake


An intimidating French guillotine in Hoa Lo Prison. Before the prison gained notoriety as a POW camp in the American-Vietnam War as the “Hanoi Hilton,” the French held political prisoners and dissidents there. It is now a museum.


The Hanoi Citadel and flag tower, built in the 11th century


St. Joseph’s Cathedral in the French Quarter. Vietnam’s population is largely Buddhist, but there are sizable groups following Catholicism, Hinduism, and Islam as well. The result is a blend of beautiful pagodas, churches, and mosques throughout the country.

Jordan has never been happier than during our visit to a Cat Cafe. We spent a couple dollars on cat food and Pâté, ensuring we were the center of attention among Jordan’s new friends.

After four days in northern Vietnam split between Hanoi and Halong Bay, we boarded a plane early Monday morning and left for Ho Chi Minh City. Formerly known as Saigon, the long-time capital is a vastly different city and environment. Rather than the misty northern winter (it wasn’t actually very cold), we were heading to sweltering heat and soul-crushing humidity.

Two (Hopefully) Quiet Americans

Saigon is a massive city. The headlining picture of this article features Jordan and I on the 52nd floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower in its sky bar. If you walk 360 degrees around the entire bar, you will not see the end of the cityscape — it’s massive buildings divided by a different rivers as far as the eye can see.

There is money in Ho Chi Minh City. At one point, we walked through a gigantic mall, maybe 10 levels total, that largely featured luxury brands. The buildings are bigger, cars are more common, and rush hour is actually even more intense. The feeling of “Old Vietnam” is more prevalent in Hanoi, where it seeps from every building and narrow alleyway, but it permeates through Saigon as well if you stray from the standard tourist path. The hectic nature of Vietnam in general can be overwhelming, but both cities actually do a very nice job of providing centers of calm, often in the form of green parks and pagodas.

As the former capital of southern Vietnam and base of U.S. military operations, our shared and recent history is harder to avoid in Ho Chi Minh City. Learning more about the war than what high school and Apocalypse Now taught me was not a central goal in this trip, but it was still the most eye-opening experience in a journey filled with completely new adventures.

On our second day in Saigon, we visited the War Remnants Museum, the most popular museum in the city. Once titled the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression before the relationship between the two countries normalized, the museum is a must-see among tourists for a reason.

Now, it’s run by the Vietnamese government, and the placards around the museum certainly make their agenda and bias clear. At the same time, no spin was really required to unsettle or horrify anyone with eyes or a conscious. Brutal, often award-winning photographs of napalm and death filled the walls. An entire room dedicated to those born with defects from Agent Orange decades later. Excerpts from the Russell Tribunal, a European committee that condemned the war back in 1967, years before it would end. Millions dead. The names of a whole village wiped out, exclusively made up of women who tended to be under the age of 16 or over 60. And their children.

It’s a difficult topic to talk about as a U.S. citizen. From what I remember of my scholastic education, we were simply taught that the war was a mistake, but never learned to what extent. Furthermore, any sympathy shown toward the Vietnamese or criticism of the U.S.’ involvement is easily misconstrued as anti-American or anti-soldier because of protesters’ shameful treatment of soldiers returning from the war.

Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American is widely known as the quintessential Vietnam book. The novel takes place during the Vietnamese revolution against the French, focusing primarily on a love triangle while the war rages on. Throughout the personal drama, Greene explains how the West did not understand the country they were inhabiting nor how to possibly win this endless war. Nearly a decade before American combat troops were on the ground, the Englishman predicted further American involvement, the war, and the outcome. He was not alone in his foresight, either; President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara acknowledged the war as unwinnable as early as 1965. Americans and Vietnamese died en mass for another eight years before Operation Homecoming.

After the museum, I didn’t know exactly what to do with all the information I learned. I still don’t. But, I think more people should have it.

Saigon Eats

Leaving an experience like the War Remnants Museum and trying to return to fun tourist mode is difficult. It’s made easier, though, by the incredible friendliness of the folks in Vietnam, who largely seem to hold no ill will over battles that are still less than 50 years old.


A mix of fruit from the Mekong Delta. Each morning in Saigon, we grabbed fresh smoothies from a shop in the bottom of our apartment complex for about $1. They tasted better than the Jamba Juice smoothies that sneak sherbet into the final product.


Jordan doesn’t eat meat, but cheerfully accompanied me to a steakhouse and watched me eat snails. To show my appreciation, we went on a vegetarian food walk through Saigon. Pictured above are vegetarian version of Mi Quang, a central noodle dish, and Com Tam (broken rice). The soybean patty in the Com Tam was the ugliest and best meat substitute I’ve ever tasted.


Speaking of that steakhouse… A Chateaubriand from B3 Steakhouse for my 23rd Birthday

I wasn’t not going to drink cobra rice wine.


A papaya salad seated on our rental bike from a well-known street vendor in Saigon. The story I’m told is that The Papaya Lady put her daughter through college by selling thousands of these papaya salads at about $1 a piece. Inside the bag are slices of papaya, peanuts, beef jerky, and dressing. Add chili sauce until your face burns.


Bon Bo Hue: a central dish featuring pork blood in the broth


I had to message Duy on Instagram to get the name of my favorite street food I tried during our trip. Banh Trang Nuong sees a sheet of rice paper placed over a charcoal grill and folded over like a quesadilla. Warm and melty inside is a mix of pork, chicken, scallions, quail eggs, chilis, and some hot sauce. Delicious!


We didn’t leave Saigon until mid-day Saturday, meaning we had a few hours to occupy ourselves after checking out. I hauled my heavy back pack maybe a mile to Chef Thien, another French restaurant, and nearly died in the heat and humidity. Totally worth it

Sights

In addition to the vegetarian foods tour, we went on a longer day trip that took us to both the Cu Chi Tunnels to the north and the Mekong Delta to the south. The delta was beautiful, the tunnels terrifying. At one point, we crawled forty yards through a tunnel expanded twice the size for us large tourists. Well, I’m a Flyweight and professional athlete, and after forty yards I was pretty ready to get out. It’s hot and cramped, and the compact nature of the tunnel means there isn’t enough Oxygen. Several minutes was more than enough, but some of the soldiers who fought in that area were forced to hide underground for a mind-boggling 21 years. We also saw some displays of the different types of traps used in the war … yikes!

An example of an entrance/exit to the tunnels


Jordan’s shiny silver head hidden in the Cu Chi Tunnels


Nothing better than getting permission from your guide to follow your impulse.


Canoeing down a channel of the Mekong Delta


Sun setting over the dock


A flower shop in a Cambodian neighborhood


A neighborhood that was largely destroyed during the Tet Offensive


A friendly Iguana we met

A taste of Saigon rush hour


My favorite example of random Vietnamese friendliness. After dinner, we walked around District 1 for some beautiful sights and famous landmarks, and we wanted to get a picture in front of city hall. We asked a pair of Vietnamese ladies to help us out with the photo, and they more than answered the call. Despite being in a seriously busy area, they successfully shooed other people away and yelled at a van to move. They took a dozen pictures on our phone before deciding they were unhappy with the quality. Then, they used their own camera and emailed us the pictures.


The Central Post Office in District 1

Lifetime Souvenir

During our tour in Hanoi, we walked through a house built in the 18th century where a well-known rich family had lived. On the walls hung a variety of scrolls and paintings, one of which featured some phoenixes extremely similar to the one tattooed on my chest from four years ago. I asked our guides about it, and they explained that the phoenix is one of the four holy animals in Vietnamese culture.


Now, I’ll readily admit that I got my phoenix in America because I simply liked the art and was tired of waiting for the perfect idea. I won my second amateur fight and got it done the next day. As it happens, I stumbled upon a bit of meaning.

I couldn’t just leave it there. I had considered getting a tattoo while in Vietnam before the trip, but checking out Bob Tattoo near Bui Ven Street confirmed it for me. The past work was beautiful, the ink and equipment shipped from the West, and the shop seemed very sterile. I’ve been tattooed enough to make educated decisions. We did admittedly pay up a bit for the western cleanliness and equipment standards, but going cheap on tattoos is generally not a wise plan, and the prices were still very fair.

I had a vague idea of possibly getting an ouroboros — a snake eating itself and symbol for infinity/rebirth, which would tie well with the Phoenix — but instead I landed on a second of the four holy beasts.


It’s a difficult location for pictures. Done by Dung Black of Bob Tattoo in Saigon, Vietnam

Jordan, meanwhile, decided to go with a peony. Unlike her usual preference, she went colorful.


Tattoo done by Bob of Bob Tattoo in Saigon, Vietnam

Tam Biet!

I didn’t expect to be able to go on a trip like this for at least a couple years. The gym does not allow for time off, and I have work besides that, writing here and occasionally driving for Lyft. Jordan is just as busy, splitting her time between college, a dental office, and sushi restaurant.

I also didn’t expect to have a tumor. I am not an “Everything Happens for a Reason”-type person, but I do believe in making the most of bad situations. I knew we wanted to do this, and suddenly we had an opportunity.

So we did it.

This trip also inspired me as a mixed martial artist. As a professional fighter from Team Alpha Male, jiu-jitsu brown belt, and fight analyst, I’m qualified to teach just about anywhere. I’ve always thought the idea of teaching somewhere overseas sounded neat, but actually being in another country made the concept real. Could I live in a place like Vietnam and teach jiu-jitsu? After my experiences there, that sounds fantastic. Fighting is a game of uncertainty, so every back up plan that falls into my lap is a welcome one.

Similarly, one of my goals in fighting has always been to travel. To fly free somewhere distant, stay in a paid hotel, fight, and then explore the area is a dream. As a West Coast transplant, I’m never going to make serious money by selling 300 tickets in California, so I might as well fly somewhere else to fight. In a year or two, getting flown out to fight will be a realistic option assuming all goes well (seriously ONE FC, call me).

And hey, maybe in another couple years, I’ll talk to the big bosses here at MMAmania.com and do some type of multimedia story on kicking down a banana tree in Thailand.





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