May 07, 2015

Wrong way up - a Vietnam diary

I have been in Vietnam for 48 hours and it's not going well.

The airport lost my luggage, my credit card is frozen, I have been physically harassed by my xe om driver, and I managed to make my face bleed by walking into a stupid fake tree. These trees are everywhere, giant pink flowers exploding on every corner of every street. Quiver in fear, puny mortals ! Tet, the Lunar New Year festival, is upon us. How do you know, you ask ? Well, apart from the ugly plastic forest that seems to have sprung overnight, another symptom of this is that all buses, trains and planes are booked out. I guess I'd better start walking.

I always knew that Vietnam, otherwise a tempting mistress to tango with for a few weeks, would not be a piece of cake. This turned out to be a massive understatement. Let me put it this way : after three days of being smothered by the fumes of Saigon, almost getting crushed to death by a market crowd, and ending up with a black eye (that stupid tree), I am ready to admit to the following postulate : Vietnam is a bitch. Or rather, I am Vietnam's bitch. Whichever way you'd rather put it : Vietnam greeted me with open arms, and then smacked me across the face. Hard.

Every day is a struggle, but the good kind of struggle – the kind that leaves you tired, depraved, and wanting more. I go out in the morning with a vengeance and make my way across one city or the next, soaking up the sights, noises and smells, trying to make them mine – and when I come back at night, I collapse on my bed and I lie desperately awake, my eyes fixed on the ceiling, until I fall into a dreamless, heavy sleep. I work my way north like I would through a blackberry bush – limbs scratched by the thorns, lips shining with juice. I recall my itinerary in the simplest way, counting the cities on my fingers like so many berries, between sweet and bitter. First is Ho Chi Minh City, alias French Saigon. Beautiful, cultured, insane. Here is where I learn to cross the street with my eyes half-closed, hoping – praying – that the hundreds of motorbikes will circle around my body without hittinh me. Here is also where I acquire a taste for street corner pho, going out every morning at 6am to share breakfast with the locals. Next is Hoi An, the romantic, its charm somewhat faded by the hords of tourists buying ugly trinkets on the banks of the canal. Three. Hue the imperial, first time I actually feel relaxed walking around. Four. I get to Hanoi with the biggest flu of my life and I feel like staying in bed for a few days. But I get myself high on dodgy antibiotics and I go out, and Hanoi, who is every bit the dragon I knew it would be, swallows me. I write in my journal :

« It happens when you're not looking. Falling into the arms of the dark warm street, and letting it crush you between its teeth, swallow you, digest you. You walk and walk in these sinuous back streets and suddenly the fear is gone. Just like that. Because suddenly the twisted trees bending gracefully over the curb, are home, and the orange lights are home, and the unsmiling face of the lady that pours boiling fragrant water over a mesure of white noodles is home, and so is the flavour of herbs and citrus coming to tickle your nose from a wide veneer bowl. Sit down and feast, orders Hanoi the queen – and you obey, because there's nothing else to do. It swarms, it stinks, it's mad. A hive made of old french buildings and tiny shops concealed by woodboards. You're in love, don't try to deny it. »

There are redeeming moments, or rather redeeming places, where Vietnam and I seem to hold a thruce. Cat Ba Island is one of them. For a few days, I meet up with a friend, make new ones, develop a routine made of late breakfasts, hours spent talking, and walks on the beaches of Lan Ha bay. In the morning we devotely observe the ritual of going to the harbour and ordering a coffee. We drink it the vietnamese way : an inch of condensed milk at the bottom of the glass, waiting for the dark gold liquid to drip slowly from the tin filter. It's an addiction. We spend New Year's Eve there, sharing in the festivities with the locals, beautiful fireworks exploding on the water. The next night, we ride on old motorbikes on a road with no lights (I clenched my driver's waist so hard I think I pulled a muscle), invited at a local's home. We drink too much rice wine, sing karaoke and generally make fools of ourselves, before passing out in the hammocks outside. We sleep, not long, wake up with the choir of roosters. I splash cold water on my face and am whisked away on my friend's bike. Driving back into town, the road isn't scary anymore. Misty peaks around us, morning wind flowing in my face and curing my hangover, I smile. I am free.

I get to the north on a night bus, walking into Sapa at 5am, exhausted. The north is my favourite part. The sun here is strong, the people laugh. Hmong women patrol the streets looking for tourists to bring back to their village, and I play along, making friends with a funny girl called Mimi. She's my age, she's been married at fifteen and has two kids – we have more in common that you'd expect. I spend the night with her family in the valley, singing songs and cooking on the fire. I keep on trekking further north and visit Hmong and Yao villages, and everywhere I am in awe of their joy and resilience. With them I feel like I understand Vietnam at last. They are stubborn if nothing else. Brave, hardworking, quick to anger but swift to forgive. I fall in love with them.

On my last night in the north, I meet this boy and after dinner, we walk to the bus station – he's catching a night bus south. This boy is tall and he has eyes to make you beg. As it often happens when travelers meet, twenty minutes after the first words we're already spilling out our deepest wounds. It gets emotional. And here I am, almost thirty days since I set foot in Vietnam : this boy is standing in front of me with tears gleaming in his pretty eyes, and it pains me like he's my brother. I want to fix him. I want to hug him until he's all okay. When he's gone, I walk back home. It's late. No one's here. The street lights emit a gloomy green and orange glow. The fog rushes through the street like a river, and it smells of summer rain. I twirl in it, my fingers slashing at it, tearing gashes in it like it's a fabric. I am swallowed again, I am melting – into nothing. I think – this is it. This is how I disappear.

Vietnam makes me loud, but silences me. It makes me brave, but frightens me.
I couldn't stand it. I couldn't wait to leave. But when I leave - I want to stay. Til the next time.

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