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The Faces of Vietnam

I had just enough time for another pork chop lunch at my favourite little café before rushing to board the bus out of Dalat, where the restaurant owner- whom I always thought looked oddly hip in jeans and a v-neck t-shirt- said goodbye to me for the second time in two days. 'I thought you left Dalat already,' he said while wiping tables, which as far as I could figure out was his most favourite pastime in that place.

At the petrol station I loitered around the hefty bus, not knowing if the lady at the makeshift table would eventually issue me a ticket, when I noticed a man fiddling with a bag a few feet away. Inside the plastic weave-effect bag was a dog. The man employed a disturbing smile on his moustached-face as he seemed to be loosening some of the plastic binding which held the canine inside its little prison; all four legs folded at awkward angles. My face gawked unapologetically and met the eye of several onlookers, leaving disapproving traces in their interpretation of me. The dog's head poked out permanently from the corner of the bag and breathed a deep sigh as the strapping became looser around his throat. I found myself breathing deeply and in unison with the dog in those first few breaths. With one swift motion the man lifted the bag by the handles and loaded it, with the dog inside, onto the underside luggage section of the coach. The dog's face looked disconsolate as if to be saying, why am I being loaded on like a suitcase? Man's best friend, stored like a sack of potatoes. I couldn't take it anymore. I walked up to the dog and pointed out to the four men standing nearby that as the large doors of the luggage section would be closed soon, the two adjacent pneumatic arms of the two doors would lower and close within millimetres of the dog's face, possibly crushing his head. They hadn't even considered it. I didn't speak their language, and they didn't speak mine, but I made it clear. I walked away with a shake of the head, trying not to be pretentious, just simply making a point, and making no more eye-contact with anyone standing by, keeping my point just what it was. The attitude towards animals here and in so many parts of Asia in particular seemed so Neanderthal-like. I was seeing it everywhere. After three or four minutes I heard one of the men call out to me, 'Hey.' I looked and saw that the owner had laid the dog down away from the swing-arms of the doors, but still bound inside the bag. I scrunched up the corner of my mouth to acknowledge the gesture; it was after all his dog, and he didn't have to listen to me. I didn't smile once during that trip, all I could think about was the poor animal, hot from the lack of air, exposed to the engine noise and in danger of falling bags underneath us all as we sat in sleeper berths for fourteen hours. The most I managed was a neutral expression of relief when at the meal stop I saw that the owner had unloaded the dog to allow it to walk around on a lead. He seemed cheery enough, and the animal appeared thankful, as was I.

I felt like my attitude towards animal treatment was becoming something of importance. I faired perfectly well in India having not touched an ounce of meat. But since then I had eaten meat, and always wondered what kind of conditions they were kept in, and what kind of merciless death they faced. I thought that soon enough I'd probably be a vegetarian on a permanent basis. It was beginning to make less and less sense that we should be able to farm other beings for their flesh.

Along the bus journey, the shape and colour of Vietnam changed by the hour. My name Adam literally means red earth, and Vietnam had plenty of that, along with tufts of sharply-coloured green grasses, tall trees and distant mountains holding onto a thick duvet of fog. Streams of colour flew past the window as we drove from one small village to another through winding open roads. Cerise and cartoon-yellow, although striking, couldn't match the ubiquitous and dazzling chlorophyll-green. These were the colours of a healthy Vietnam, a productive Vietnam, and they made for a nice visual while inside these borders.

Another sleepless night on another plodding sleeper bus. As the fourteen hours came to an end, the attendant approached me, 'Hoi An?'
'Hoi An,' I reply, nodding and gathering my things sharply for a quick exit. Comparing the transport assistance you get on Asian networks with that of Eastern Europe is like comparing a ring-tailed lemur with a hedgehog; completely different animals altogether. The signless stations of Hungary and the bigoted expression of Bulgarian ticket clerks came to mind as I thanked the assistant for letting me know my stop and stepping off the bus.
Ah... this is just an intersection of God-knows-where. I stood with my bag like dangling bait in front of the waiting piranha motorbike taxi drivers. 'Where you go?' asked the first man. 'Ah, urgh, umm,' I replied with a screwed up face, heaving my bag towards the kerb as the sound and sight of the bus disappeared into the distance. 'Where you go?'
'Uh, Phan Boi Chau,' I murmured. 'Huh?'
'Phan Boi Chau?' I repeated. 'Huh?'
'Ahem, Hoi Huang Hotel?'
'Oh, OK. Hoi Huang one or Hoi Huang two?'
'Dammit, I didn't know there were two with the same name. Mmm...one,' I added at a guess. My judgement was that if the guidebook didn't say there was a second hotel by the same name, then the one I wanted was probably the original. 'How much?' I asked the driver. He gave that little look which indicated he was trying to judge how badly to over-inflate his price. 'Seventy thousand.' I closed off, moving myself away from him. 'No, too much.'
'OK, how much you pay?' Because of my slightly vulnerable position it took me longer to convince myself I should give him a much lower offer. But out it came. 'Forty thousand.'
'OK, fifty thousand, bus station ten kilometre,' he replied, justifying the cost. In this little situation my judiciousness on how much things like this should cost left me all of a sudden, I was experiencing fade-in, fade-out judgement, as if I'd just arrived on the first day, trying to figure out the angles. 'Phan Boi Chau, fifty thousand, OK,' I confirmed to seal the deal. He heaved my backpack onto the front of the bike between his legs and I hopped onto the back.

As the bike zipped on down the road, the warm morning air filled me with a fresh feeling of adventure. He was right, the bus drop-off point was not that close to the actual town of Hoi-An. Fifty thousand was beginning to feel a bit like a bargain; glad I didn't try to walk this as I'd threatened. If he understood me when I said it, they'd have had a little laugh at me for sure. I'd paid thirty thousand for a 2 km cyclo ride in Nha Trang, so this wasn't bad. We passed by old women wearing conical hats and pushing bicycles, men loading and unloading small trucks. Baskets of fish hung from bamboo rods appeared on every forth or fifth shoulder. I was beginning to like the feel of this place.
Almost ten minutes later, there I was banging on the door window of Hoi Huang Hotel 1, where the guy on the morning shift awoke from the safety of his mosquito net and let me in. 'Cam ung,' I said to the driver who steadied off with a slight nod. I checked into a room that at once made me believe in feng shui, it was so awfully laid-out. Keen to get out of the room I took to the first floor balcony which directly overlooked Thu Bon river. I sat peacefully and watched as the small fishing boats came in and old ladies bailed out with luminous plastic cups; keeping the business afloat, literally. Baskets of small silvery fish were being scooped from one metal bowl and into another. The sun rose in the sky, silhouetting the bonsai tree perched on the balcony edge to my left. I started to warm like a lizard on a rock as the sun continued to rise and its hue changed from morning orange to daytime butter-yellow. I suddenly realised that the ice-tea I thought I was drinking was actually an energy drink. I thought that tea tasted a bit funky, I thought; no chance of grabbing a couple of hours kip now then.

Meandering through the market, which began its sprawl a stone's throw from the hotel, I saw that hundreds of people plied the tiny crowded lanes where the smell of fish was dominant above all else. The river lay directly behind the stalls on my left. It was an easy arrangement to build the market along the riverside to allow easy unloading of seafood straight on to the stalls for selling. Women seemed to make up ninety per cent of the activity underneath the plastic tarpaulins. The way in which the chickens were handled and traded was both practised and gloomy; each pair of feet grasped between two fingers, with four or five juveniles hanging upside-down in one hand. Fish of all varieties sat in deathly displays, foiled by their fellow earthlings. The conical hat was now in charge of this space as the majority of women seemed to own one and wore it proudly despite the shade offered by the tarpaulin roof. All around was the chatter of trade in the usual South-East Asian tone of high vocal peaks and lingering lows. If this were a competition of vocal expression, these women would be leading at the front and at the same time causing everyone else to plug their fingers in their ears.

I emerged into the sun again and after thirty seconds decided to sit in a café, away from the direct heat. I was already sweating from the enclosure of the market, I could feel the sun was going to try its best to bake me alive. Café de Amis was a small, humble establishment with green and white tiled floors and two men playing draughts at the table by the open-fronted entrance. Mr. Kim, the café owner, fired up the old stack system. The sound of piano and guitar jazz flowed smoothly and combined sublimely well with the sounds of outboards and market trading. I sat quite happily just watching the glistening water shine a dancing pattern of silver light upon the hull of a wooden fishing boat by the river's edge. The occasional slam of draught pieces on the tile board startled me time after time as the two men became excited and restrained in equal measures when the game progressed towards the crowning of a winner. An unfortunate turn of music occurred when When you say nothing at all came through the café speakers, I knew then that it was time for me to step back out into the sun, away from Ronan and his mates.

The streets and architecture of Hoi An were absolutely one of its best features. French colonial shop fronts had been tastefully kept and improved upon with solid woods and a refreshing lack of neon, instead favouring wood-carved signs which held both tradition and style in a delicate balance. Clothes tailoring was a speciality here, and for a relatively modest sum one could have an entire wardrobe made to measure. Slightly worried about my sexuality I found the women's clothes to be so much more appealing and of great taste. Floral designs and modern tropical colours were used expertly with earthy shades to create some stunning apparel which hung curvaceously from headless mannequins. Rustic old cafés with modern touches dotted each street, on which there was a peaceful lack of motor vehicles; bicycle seemed to be the way to go in this town, and it matched the old-world China feel that hung in the air. Ancient Chinese style bridges and temple roofs made up the rest of the character. With one ticket, you could visit the several temples and sites of interest which popped up with every two minutes of walking, protected behind gates, adjacent to a clothes shop or café. There was a wonderful unity about this town which spoke wonders of the way in which the modern purpose of business had been muted with natural style and combinations of colours so as not to encroach on its natural charm.

Stepping out that evening it was plainly obvious by the long strips of darkness on the street that businesses close early here. It was so normal to see all businesses open late at night in Asia that I'd become used to the luxury of late-night purchasing. But as I suspected there's always one converted home/noodle shop restaurant (with flimsy tables and the all-too-popular miniature plastic chairs, small enough for a five year-old) which has its lights on and a pot of noodle soup warming on the stove. With a filled stomach I began the walk back to the guesthouse and noticed the incense sticks placed in the cracks in the pavement. Ahead of me, on the left-hand-side of the street a woman bent to place another one outside her place of business. She took two steps back from the incense and clasped her hands together, bowing slightly and swaying her hands forward three times in prayer. She turned to the right, repeating the gesture, before finishing with the same prayer offering to the left. I got the feeling that blessings were being bestowed left and right as the town seemed to have a good thing going on.

I woke the next morning, bleary-eyed from all the bad feng shui energy, probably, only to find a scorpion waiting in the bathroom. At the corner of the bath tub, there he was, looking all innocent, not moving a muscle. At only two inches long, the little brown and black devil wouldn't normally have concerned me, only I'd constantly heard from wildlife programmes such as Nature's Killers or Extreme (a title which always amused me, extreme what?) that the smaller the scorpion the more flipped-out you should get about it. Playing by that rule, I should be delirious at the sight of this little monster. Saving the drama in an oh, by the way, kind of approach, I nonchalantly mentioned the presence of the murderous beast to the Lilliputian at reception, whereupon she notified the similarly dinky Vietnamese man standing beside her. So as not to look like a pansy, I made sure I walked at the front of the Scorpion Removal Gang, which consisted of myself and the aforementioned, as we marched, or rather, casually swayed down the hotel's long and narrow ground floor corridor. But it was no use, my humiliation came as the gentleman strolled into the bathroom, placed a single finger on the scorpion's back and swept it away without a second breath. Oh, right, yeah, I mean, I didn't want to hurt the poor thing with my manly hands or anything, I could've handled it, it's just I don't know where he lives, so I thought you might have been able to take him home, but that's cool. I continued to offer myself consoling thoughts of the creature's well-being, when what I felt more than anything was relief not to have risked a sting on the finger and instant death. Little did I know that tomorrow morning the scorpion would be replaced- in exactly the same spot- by a fat cockroach. Had I stayed another day, who knows, it might have been a spider; collect the whole set.

Here in Hoi An, I felt content with just strolling the streets and observing the labyrinth of lines on faces, faces perched atop frail, sauntering bodies, which as they came closer appeared less and less human and more like that of a grazing bear; mind in tow. What have those eyes seen and those ears heard that goes beyond my feeble experiences? I wondered to myself. What did they think at the first sign of foreign visitors? Would they smile or stare if I tried to talk to those deeply-chiselled shields? Would they bat me away? But I had no words for them, I felt inadequately qualified and removed; looking on was my only duty on this occasion. The Vietnamese were beautiful people, but I couldn't help staring at the weathered rocks in this river bed of smoothly rounded features, the craggy outcrops that told silent stories of steadiness under a battering wind.

I enjoyed Hoi An, and so it was with some displeasure that I arrived in Hanoi the next day. Seven hours sleep on the bus was a record though; the wonders of Diazepam. I bunched into a taxi with three other English travellers and enjoyed a free ride to the accommodation. As we leaked out onto the pavement and into Hanoi Guesthouse- for whom the driver was working- to look at their rooms, I pulled a cheeky little number and wandered off, not checking in, but instead I checked-into the City Gate Guesthouse, my own choice; cleaner rooms, nicer staff and an actual lift. Such luxury.

Walking around Hanoi, two things became very clear: it wasn't quite as presentable as Ho Chi Minh City, and they sold a lot of bags, belts, boots and t-shirts. Despite these initial impressions, as time went on I felt good about the general vibe of the capital. As usual the offer of 'motorbike' was as forthcoming as ever; I adopted my usual tactic of smiling, saying 'No, thank you,' and walking on. Hanoi had some interesting building fronts, but as usual the narrow shops at street-level stole the focus with a visual shout. I tried to imagine the hypothetical atmosphere were Hanoi devoid of shops. Like Kathmandu, I'm sure it would have been a very different entity.

Between the many buildings of Hanoi were a series of narrow alleyways. Dark and foreboding. Despite the paths being public space they led to private residences that were buried deeply, away from the sun's penetrative rays. If I was brave enough to have a look I'd have to duck my head and carry a torch, but I got the feeling the locals wouldn't take too well to a camera-toting foreigner making a path for their residence blocks. These alleys used to be prime location for late-night deals, now they were just vital arteries for locals to make their way back from the street and into a chasm of lightless homecoming.

It was time to shift on. Hanoi to Halong bay took three hours and with grey skies overhead I arrived anticipating a few days of natural beauty in this UNESCO world heritage site. Halong bay was home to roughly three thousand limestone karsts (peaks) that rose up from the sea bed and up out into the dry world. Similar peaks can be seen in China and Laos where they climb from the land towards the sky, but only in Vietnam do they sit in the sumptuous setting of a marine panorama. Once aboard the junk, we were told this would be our home for the night, and as the only single traveller in this group of holidaying tourists and backpackers I would be the lucky one with a luxurious cabin all to myself; next door to the engine room. Bitter-sweet might sum this up. The dining room on the junk was exemplary. The elegant place settings and white high-back chairs with purple ribbons tied to them gave the ambience a touch of class. Outside, the limestone karsts sprung up from the seabed as if to touch the sky with sturdy form, and stood, each one like a majestic and wind-whipped gravestone; grey and green, life clinging to lifelessness.

Halong translates to Where the Dragon descends into the Sea, and as legend has it this mythical beast during one particular hissy-fit tore a new a-hole for the land and dunked his sulking self into the sea, whereupon the area filled with water and only the peaks were left visible. For those who have their head stuck firmly in the realm of conceptual reality, the karst peaks were just the consequence of a once-whole limestone plateau which gradually fell apart over the course of twenty million years. The groundwater shaped the land from beneath, creating caves, cliffs, grottos and sink-holes, eventually weakening the overall landscape and allowing the sea flood waters to do the rest about two million years ago. This left behind a shattered remnant of what once was, but still life clings to these shores and we humans now have playground in which to gawk and drop beer cans; inevitably.
During a visit to some surprisingly vacuous caves, lit by shades of green and purple bulbs, we were unfortunate enough to have to listen to Vietnamese guides describing every stalagmite as vague look-alikes of something random and unexciting. 'This one we call the happy Buddha; look at his belly.' Or 'This one we call the dragon; you can see his wiggly tail,' and my personal favourite, 'This is finger rock, if you look closely you can see it resembles a pointing finger,' when clearly it looked just like an erect cock and balls, and everybody knew it.

Kayaking around the deep water bay was one of the best things I could have done; conquering a fear that saw me fearful of the unseen contents of the deep blue. I glided through the calm waters from cave to karst, marvelling at the giants surrounding me; focussing my brain to take in the memory and allowing myself to remain in the moment for as long as possible. To be here, to be free, to be floating through nature's twenty million year project, well I was lucky.

The junk floated in the middle of the bay, surrounded by a few other moored boats which seemed like cockroaches in a night shadow, their shiny decks and twinkly lights beaming sparkly reflections of moonlight and electricity our way. The mighty karst peaks disappeared with the sun's last rays, patiently awaiting their reappearance in morning splendour upon its inevitable revival. We swayed gently with the rise and fall of the tidal current. I woke suddenly with the sensation of cold rain falling upon my face and realised I had fallen asleep on the top deck, it was one o'clock in the morning and a relaxing lay-down had obviously turned into a fully-fledged sleep. I dragged myself downstairs with the comfort of thought that I had a luxury cabin in which to rest my head, and with the engine switched off had myself a luxury sleep till dawn.

The next day, this extravagance I shared with the middle-aged Aussie holiday-makers ended abruptly when I was dropped off at a distinctly average-looking hotel on Cat Bo island. I knew this type of hotel. I had stayed in this type of hotel. 'OK, you,' our guide said to me with a pointed finger. 'Come.' I disembarked from the minibus and followed him inside. This would be my barracks for tonight, and as I rested on that thought, the others were whisked away to a five-star resort, pretending to feel sorry for me, but secretly awaiting the feel of soft towels and crisp bedsheets, living the high-life.
So, the room. Stained walls, broken lights, hard bed, loose taps, blocked sink, gaffer-taped mirror, broken fan (wired with bare copper-wire wrapped around the 2 pins of the extension lead plug) and a musty smell that topped the whole thing off with an impressive level of neglect. Tour over.

On the boat back to Halong City the next day I laughed to myself at how polarised the two nights were in comparison. Promised the world, and delivered the dark side of the moon. My arrival in Hanoi brought back a sense of the familiar. The same bustling streets, where I found it inexplicably easy to get lost if I took more than two turnings while out and about, where you'd slip on the pavement and jar your back a dozen times a day with only a hint of rain forecast, and where you'd perpetually be given the offer of motorbike at junctions, a distraction most unwelcome, as these junctions in Hanoi are the most important place to keep your wits about you as you have to look in four directions before crossing. It seemed a bad choice of location to try and distract people with something they probably didn't want only to risk seeing them step into oncoming traffic.

Two more nights in Hanoi due to a delay at the Chinese embassy. I was waiting for the return of my passport, with the addition of a visa inside. And on the morning of its arrival I left City Gate Hotel in a storm that seemed intent on drowning us all with thick, fat rain which fell in heavy gushes which drenched anyone in less than five seconds of exposure. I stood under the awning across from the hotel where an old lady in a cone-shaped hat picked out copper-coloured cockerels from a metal box on the floor. Their legs and wings bound, held upside-down between the old lady's practised fingers before being shoved into a weave basket.

On the bus journey, cows stood lazily in waterlogged fields of green grass and brown pools while lightning struck the sky around them. Parked cars were already half a wheel deep in rainwater. I had a rough and slightly outdated idea of the currency conversion and the transport system in China. But here I was about to cross the border into one of the world's most untranslatable countries only knowing that I had to get from Nanning to either Guangzhou or Shenzhen, and then from there to Kowloon in Hong Kong. No currency, no timetable, no guidebook, no hotel names and no background reading on China as an entity for the foreigner.
I noticed the Chinese characters that were embossed onto the headrest covers, it felt like a glimpse into the incomprehensible, and it made me nervous at the thought of being surrounded by such historic code. Modern sounds of Vietnamese love songs came through the coach speakers. The soaking I'd received was now cold on my skin and failing to dry under the air-conditioning, the lightning forked out from the sky every five or ten seconds and thunderous claps belched out from the grey heavens as if to warn me of something. Every bolt touched the ground, unlike the pacifistic, horizontal lightning I was used to seeing back home, and in the strangest of symphonies of sound and light we bowled on towards China proper through a beautiful landscape of more tree-covered limestone karsts thick with cloud and deep-green rice paddies barely hiding the conical hats and sturdy, grey oxen in their midst.

Posted by kookie888 22:58 Archived in Vietnam

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