And so, I think I left you last in Port Barton, Philippines, with a few days to go at Salvación’s house, and looking to Vietnam with anticipation about the next portion of our journey.
Our last week in Port Barton started to feel a little lonely – our lovely Germans had gone, and we were left with each other for company. And although it’s fine being a twosome, this trip has taught me that we are all looking for the same thing. Community. The recipe for the perfect travelling experience is quite simple – beautiful place + interesting and friendly people + decent and affordable food and accommodation = happy travellers. You can research the most beautiful places, and seek out the food and lodging, but you can’t magic a stimulating and welcoming community out of nowhere.
So with each other for company, we played cards at the local shop, enjoying mango juice and plantain crisps as our evening snack, watching the cockerels in their shiny plumage strut around. We got bored. We’d eaten at the same place pretty much every day for three weeks, and pumpkin, lentils and rice got a bit tiring. My digestion got tired of it too – so tired I didn’t go to the toilet for about a week! Once I came off the rice things started moving along again, thank goodness.
And so as my digestion got going, so did we! Flying via Manila (urgh, horrible place…) to Hanoi, we arrived at my colleague Mary’s place at an ungodly hour. Mary left Brighton to seek new adventures in Vietnam. I didn’t know her that well, but as a colleague at ELC she was always chatty and friendly, and with her beautiful shiny wig, rather charming. I never asked about the wig, and neither did anyone else, which I found out later she was quite saddened by.
Vietnam, like Mary, has charm. It has charm in its skinny little houses, lined up closely next to each other, a throw-back from when shop fronts were taxed on how wide they were. We saw the mist-covered lakes, the bustling old town, and fully grown people eating and drinking on tiny plastic chairs. The chairs were so small they looked like they were made for children and their teddies at a tea party. And we thought – how lovely.
This first impression didn’t really last long. Almost every encounter with the locals left us feeling cheated. The taxi drivers who whack the meter up to full speed, and then take you a very long way home. The lady selling you two pineapples for ten times the local price. The coconut seller who quotes you a highly inflated price, and when you try to negotiate, gives you the filthiest, dirtiest look you have ever seen. And the motorbikes, everywhere, that beep at you, swerve around you, brushing past you as you try to negotiate your way along the road. There’s no pavement of course, as that’s been taken over by shops, restaurants and motorbike parking. Cristian actually started wearing earplugs as we walked around, he felt so oppressed by the constant beeping.
I rarely saw people smile in Hanoi. We went to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum on a whim, hoping for some insight. It told the story of revolutionary fighting women, stating their death tolls proudly – this 16 year old with a beautifully delicate face killed over 150 Americans. This 17 year old shot down planes. And this, only a generation ago. They showed a video of the Vietnamese street sellers, women who carry two baskets hanging from a stick across their shoulders. They talked of husbands who could no longer work, so they left their villages to support the family. They talked of getting up at 2am to go to the market, then selling all day, then sleeping in a dorm crowded with other women in the same situation. They talked of seeing their children once every few weeks, or months. So I guess it’s no wonder people weren’t smiling that much.
There is a hardness here that is not only down to poverty. There was poverty, and more of it, in the Philippines. But there was softness and smiles too. There were some small moments that I thought I saw some lightness, some friendliness – as we boarded the local bus from Lao Cau to Sa Pa, a town in the mountains, the locals all started laughing together. I have no idea what about, but they grinned at each other, hooting loudly. It was lovely to see. Yet as we wound our way through the mountains, motion sickness overwhelmed a lady to the left of us. Sitting by the window, she held her head out, trying not to vomit. And what was a lovely, lighthearted atmosphere on the bus quickly changed – the conductor shouted at her to close the window, forcing it shut when she refused, and the locals laughing at her as she clearly became more and more uncomfortable. Laughter, cruelty, harshness… It was all bound together.
Arriving in Sa Pa by night train, we were met by misty green mountains, rice paddies, and a town filled with ladies dressed in their traditional attire. “Shopping?” “You buy from me?” No thank you. “Where you from?” It’s hard to ignore a question, it feels rude. Yet the more you engage, the more the ladies stick to you, following you, showing you brightly coloured bags, bracelets, skirts… And we don’t plan to buy, so it’s just a waste of their time.
As we leave our hotel, we meet a local lady, Mama Chu, and we start chatting. We want to do some walking, and a homestay with a local family. I’d done this before on Lake Titicaca, and found it to be a really lovely experience. Mama Chu assures us that we can stay with her, and do two days of trekking, with food included, for $20. We go for it.
Her daughter, Mong, meets us the next morning. Mong has long, silky black hair. She’s 18 but looks about 13, with a face as cute as a button. She is tiny but sturdy. Like her mum, she wears a black embroidered jacket, with tasselled material wound around her legs. She comes from the Black H’Mong tribe. She went to school until she was 15, and now she takes tourists trekking like her mum, or hangs out with her friends. She is quite shy, and only speaks when we directly ask her something.
We pass fields, farms and huts, and stop for lunch. I had imagined some luscious fresh picnic beside a river (Mama Chu said she’d arrange all the food for us, vegetarian, no problem…). In reality we eat instant noodles in a shack. The whole homestay experience is a bit like that – I have rather dreamy expectations of what it could be – spending the night with the family, playing with the children, sharing our experiences, showing them photos… In reality it’s a bit different.
When we arrive Mama Chu isn’t at home, and Mong leaves us to our own devices. A few people pop in and out – presumably the father, the son – but they don’t reply to our expectant smiles and hellos. We wander around the village, Cristian getting irritated. “Let’s just go, she’s not here, no one seems that bothered whether we stay or not.” I feel bad. We stay, and by nightfall, Mama Chu arrives. Her home is extremely basic – mud floor, wood fire, black kettle. A plastic tub in the garden connected to a hose is their plumbing system. The toilet is down the road at another house. And at least 15 caged birds. There is such misery in a caged bird I can’t bear to look at them. Who feeds them? Who waters them? It seems like they live on air alone.
Mama Chu prepares tofu, vegetables, rice. We help and talk. Her husband speaks no English, so she tells us openly about his previous “happy water” habit. “He like too much happy water. He come home, he (mimes punching) me. He (mimes punching again) children.” Luckily, he seems to have changed since – for the past few years it’s been Mama Chu who earns all the money, from taking tourists trekking and doing homestays. With this money, she’s bought a bigger plot of land to build a bigger house, and although she can’t read or write, her 4 children have all gone to school. And now she earns the money, she doesn’t let her husband spend it on happy water.
Mama Chu is tired. I show her and her daughter a few photos of Brighton, and the family, and she oohs and aahs accordingly, but something in my heart knows it’s not true. She’s learnt to care, because the tourists want her to care. She gets out a massive packet of photos, all of her posing for photos with tourists. There is not a single photo of her family, of her life. And although these tourists are the ones who have helped her to build this house, to give her family more space and comfort, I wonder if she’s tired of it all. We do the washing up.
The next day continues along the same theme. Rather than walking along mountain paths, Mama Chu takes us along the road. We’re too polite to say anything. At the junction, we ask her if she’d rather just go home, instead of accompanying us to Sa Pa like she’d promised. She points us in the right direction, jumps on a motorbike home, and we walk back, glad in a way that we’ve given her the afternoon off. And that was that.
We did like Sa Pa, but I made the mistake of having romantic expectations of what I wanted it to be. Expectations = disappointment. From Sa Pa we moved south, as by this point Cristian was pining for some playa. So we head to Hoi An, crowned by many a traveller as the jewel of Vietnam – old town houses painted the colour of sunshine, tourists on rickety bicycles, the place where riverside, beach and paddy fields all meet.
Hoi An is beautiful, and beloved by international and domestic tourists alike. For the Vietnamese, visiting Hoi An must be like a Frenchman visiting Paris – this is my heritage, this is my history, this is my culture. It appeals to us – you can cycle around easily, everything is as flat as a crispy pancake. So we settle into our guesthouse, with a frosty welcome from the lady owner. Frostiness is something we have started to get used to here.
We cycle to the beach in the morning, finding our favourite spot – near some old football goal posts. We do our exercises – a bit of yoga, a bit of swimming, some pull ups on the bars. We find a scrumptious Indian place – peas and paneer, chana masala, garlic nan swimming in golden butter… We go a bit more local, enjoying the fresh dishes – morning glory with garlic, wonton soup, crispy tofu, sweet potato cakes. We like the idea of doing a cooking class, but Vietnam has rather eaten into our budget, and tours and classes are always pretty pricey. Doing yoga had really helped in Thailand and Philippines, and without the extra cheeky income we notice the difference in our expenses. Here in Hoi An we’ve got two of those special ingredients, a beautiful place + decent food and a place to stay, but we’re missing something. We don’t find our people here, we can’t find the community.
And without that, ten days here seems like quite a long time. We play a lot of cards. We read, we chat. What did you do today? The same thing that you did. How are you feeling? About the same as I was feeling an hour ago. What do you want to do today? Same as yesterday I suppose.
I realise that I have learnt, since I was very young, that it’s important and necessary to have “something to do” and a reason for doing it. Purpose, meaning, objectives, goals. It feels very uncomfortable to have no distraction from the absence of these driving forces. And I see how different Cristian and I are in this respect. He seems totally at ease with this – happy in the routine of beach, food, and stroll. Happy to be without a community to anchor him to this place. Content without the stimulation of other people’s company, ideas, thoughts and opinions. It’s enough just being him, being free, doing as he pleases.
In contrast to Cristian’s calm contentment, I realise quite how dependent I am on that stimulation that comes from being within a group. Despite how independent I might claim to be, when it comes to it, I need the sense of meaning and purpose I get from being part of a group, a project, a shared intention. Without it, life seems like a series of repeated actions: eat, sleep, dream, repeat. I want to achieve something!
It’s at this point that I realise that I ought to revel in this strange time of my life, when there is no need to get going, get doing. I know myself well enough to know that this won’t come again. I thrive on plans, projects, objectives. That’s why I organise so many activities for us together! And I try to organise Cristian – lets go here, let’s do this, let’s volunteer, let’s do a project, blah blah blah. He calmly refuses, he is not driven by this inner project manager which occupies my brain most waking moments. Cristian’s philosophy – Let’s just see, shall we? Let’s just see when we get there.
It dawns on me that we have so much to learn from each other, it’ll be seven years since we met in June this year. I am still learning how we differ, how our needs differ, and where and when to compromise. Learning, teaching, giving, taking, leading, following, achieving, being.
Hoi An bids us goodbye rather scornfully – we have to change rooms for the last two nights, and I awaken to a rather angry looking rash on my right bum cheek. I’m not sure what it is, but by the next night I’m pretty certain it’s bed bugs. I see the tiny little bastards crawling over the bedside table. The rash is really a cluster of teeny tiny juicy bites. I shiver from the indignation. Get. Off. Me. Now! Argh! I’m in a bad mood on the last day, but a good swim in the sea sorts me out. Breathe. It’s just bed bugs. I am reminded of a teaching I received – the two arrows of suffering. The first arrow hits you, and you feel pain – the bed bug bites, the itching, the scratching. And then we have the second arrow of suffering – all the stories, the indignation, the drama we create around the event. And if you want, you could even have the third arrow – feel guilty for not being “enlightened” enough to do away with that second arrow! Breathe. Forgive yourself. Swim, stretch, shake it off. I’m ok! But my bum itches.
And as my pondering takes me round in circles, we move on to the last leg of our journey in Vietnam, to Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a quick two night stop before flying to Siem Reap in Cambodia, where we’ll meet Cristian’s sister Adriana, who’ll join us for three weeks. I’m excited – temples, jungles, female company, a new member to join our little travelling team.
Ho Chi Minh is as we’d expected – full of city bits and bobs – and full of smells. Our bathroom smells of drain. The restaurant next to our hostel specialises in fermented shrimp paste. It stinks. I try durian ice cream, which smells like cheesy toenails, with a sweaty tropical sweetness. Unlike the shrimp paste, it’s not unpleasant!
We visit the museum of War Remnants, arriving to see tourists taking their photos beside American tanks and helicopters outside the entrance. We wander round, and I feel more helpless and horrified with each photograph we see. Who are these people, our leaders of the world, who can find justification for raining bombs, chemicals, toxins, over forests, villages, people, children, babies? Who are these people? And how do their brains work, to justify acting in such a way? There are generations of babies being born deformed and disabled by agent orange, the chemical they rained all over the paddy fields of Vietnam. I stand in disbelief at this huge gulf between my individual experience of life, what are my values, my actions, my way of being, and the actions and values of those who wield more power than I could ever dream of. It makes me want to flip the world upside down, and put those people somewhere the only decision they have to make is whether to have pizza or pasta for dinner that night. I don’t understand the system, I don’t trust the system, but I don’t know how to change it either.
So as you can see, Vietnam might not have been the softest, gentlest of places, but it has certainly given me time to think. Not only about big questions, but also small ones too. On the beach the other day, I found myself fondling a banana skin. It was so perfect. Beautifully, gloriously yellow, and smooth, satisfyingly so. I don’t think I’d ever really appreciated how friendly and happy the yellow of a banana skin actually is. Feel it, try it!
We await our plane for Siem Reap, for Adriana, and for Cambodia. Our last new country! From there it’s back to Thailand, and home. Despite my scheming and plotting, this summer is still very fluid, as I’m really not sure which of my plots and schemes will come together yet. But I hope more than anything to see my beloveds, and contemplate the wonders of deeply yellow banana skins, and sleep in a bug-free bed, with a bite-free bum.
I hope this email finds you happy, healthy, and mostly sane! Cristian and I send you much much love!
Love love love,
Emily and Cristian xxxxxxxxx