Other than 4000 places in Japan, my favourite surreal place in the World is Dalat. It’s one of the few places in Asia where you can be lead around a field, on a horse, by a Vietnamese man dressed as a cowboy.
I went there with an American friend, L, who has lived in both the Ecuadorian rain forest and a mid-western trailer park. She’s an overwhelming force for fun, with a laugh that translates into any language as this: I just thought of something dirty.
To the Crazy House, a Gaudi-esque oddity, both tourist attraction and hotel, full of maze like corridors, stairways to nothing and bizarrely rendered animal statues.
Next the former residence of Vietnam’s last King, to sit in traditional Vietnamese gowns on a thrown.
Having posed most regally, we entered the Valley of Love. If we’d had a Seismographer specially rendered to measure kitsch, it probably would have orgasmed.
Hundreds of gaudy statues in acres of parkland, couple swings and cowboys, and everything imaginable twisted into the shape of a heart.
It’s a top destination for newlywed Vietnamese. L and I are not a couple, and so we diluted the sugary lovliness of it all by posing for pictures as corpses.
At dinner – shellfish on the street – we got through 4 bottles of Dalat red wine and, stumbling home, came across the bright shiny lights of a nightclub entrance. Like two dazzlingly bedraggled turtles, we headed straight for the sparkling lights…
At 8.45am I trudged downstairs to tell the motorbike guys we’d hired that we wouldn’t be ready at 8.30am after all. However, all would be well at 9.30am, and at 10.45am on the dot we set off for the countryside!
Motorbiking through spectacular scenery is an excellent cure for hangovers. We hiked down under a waterfall, in true Last of the Mohicans style, took a cable car ride, and, over a lunch of chicken, beef, wild boar, tofu, fish, vegetables and silk work larvae, regained memories of the previous evening. Which for L was mostly spent swinging around a pole.
To a silk factory we trekked, the endless drone, drone, drone of the machines deafening. How odd it must be to work in a dreary factory every. single. day, and have privileged Western tourists snoop all around you.
Next, a presumably little known fact: Vietnamese weasels love coffee beans.
They eat them, and when they excreate them, the coffee beans have become gorgeously delicious. How inventive and darkly humoured nature can be.
In pretentious and snooty and quite possibly, trendy parts of New York, a cup can set you back $200. We paid two.
Thick and chocolatey.
I can’t afford $200 coffee, and never will. But I don’t have to work in a humdrum and glum factory. All round, I have reasons to feel pleased.
“We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognising and appreciating what we do have.”
Halong Bay is a good place to be: Mysterious, vast and eerie. Two thousand limestone islets jutting out of lagoon blue water, echoing into the distance. Sailing through them, you expect at any moment to hear the roar of King Kong. The sense of being at the edge of the World surrounds you like the rocks.
I sailed on a Chinese style junk to take me around for two days. With a capacity of thirty I expected good company. Instead, only seven. Myself and three couples.
Yet more hard practice in the getting-used-to-being-single-stakes.
They were nice and I was polite, making sure not to ruin their romance by my presence too much. Sitting on the top of the junk, on a long empty deck alone was good, in any case. Silence and movement. It’s getting easier to be alone.
In the early hours we fished for squid, while drinking Hanoi Vodka. It’s a drink which, along with getting you blindingly drunk, (or at the very least, blinding you) almost certainly has a practical use as drain cleaner. Not for the feint of liver.
The squid teased us but we caught one, cheering the victory like it was Moby Dick himself. We talked, and smoked, and joked and drank, seven people outside of time and the World for a while. A little light in the middle of the black Bay.
Afterwards we smoked in silence for a while. Each of us alone in our own thoughts.
And my thoughts were these: Right now, in this short silence, all of them are alone like me. And I’m together with them in being alone.
Halong Bay is a good place to be.
I’d never been on a motorcycle until a friend bought herself one. At any one moment, a number equivalent to the population of Belgium can be found on the roads of Saigon, adhering to a highway code straight out of Mad Max.
I got on the back with some trepidation, not entirely alleviated by her assurance that “I kinda don’t know how to ride this but we’ll be fine”.
We set off in a line which, had it appeared on a lie detecting device, would have been swiftly followed by a lengthy custodial sentence. We weaved and rolled like a half dazed wasp, eventually inadvertently mounting the pavement (sidewalk) and, in something I’ve seen in movies but never expected to live through, startled some stray chickens.
It become fun when death seemed less of a 50/50, and I will be eternally grateful to several Vietnamese pedestrians for their speed and dexterity in throwing themselves out of our path.
The City is exciting, but getting out for a while is required. If Vietnam had an illicit encounter with one of the prettier Greek islands, the product would be Hoi An. To a prettier place I may never have been.
Stone buildings of sunflower yellows and aquamarine blues sit in narrow little 19th century streets. During the day almost every shop is fronted by a hanging cage so that the only sound heard is the chirping of little lovebirds.
At night the little lanes are criss-crossed with coloured lanterns. A river runs through the middle, with restaurants and cafes either side, their clientele spilling out onto the street-side tables and chairs.
It’s the kind of place to wander for days, bathing yourself in serenity. A short walk away, past paddy fields and trees is a beautiful tranquil beach, waves breaking in whispers.
On the way there I found the cream of all cafes, sat on stilts over the palm tree fringed river. In the distance rolling paddy fields, a dhow lazily lolling on the river, butterflies floating haphazard shapes among the reeds beneath me, and a camera whose battery knew the exact wrong moment to give up the ghost and die.
In Hoi An, I’m sure it died happy.
“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.'”
If Vietnam were a buddy cop movie, Hanoi would be the uptight, slightly staid and always-by-the-book man, while Saigon would be played by Eddie Murphy.
I went there – Hanoi – to see a dead man. Ho Chi Minh shuffled off our mortal coil in 1969, leaving a will requesting his cremation. They didn’t listen.
He lays in a monolithic mausoleum in a huge open square, where I stood with hundreds of others. Slowly we shuffled forward like a North Korean breadline. Broad shouldered young military men in pristine white uniforms watched us closely, gruffly gesturing at those wearing hats to remove them.
We shambled like a sad conga up a winding staircase until we reached the room in which he lay. It was high-ceilinged, with long deep red drapes covering the walls.
We didn’t, were not allowed to stop. You move along 3 sides of the room, staring at the fourth, where Ho lays in a raised glass coffin, flanked by four guards.
There is a rumour that somewhere in the hazy past the real body was lost (a terrifying admission for a private to make to his superior, I’m sure), and that he was replaced with a dummy. If so, they went somewhere superior to Madame Tussards. The details of a lived in face are all there.
The mood was sombre and I felt like a voyeur at a funeral. But he looked well for someone 43 years dead.
Remember, the storm is a good opportunity for the pine and the cypress to show their strength and their stability.
Ho Chi Minh
It’s been ten months since my last confession, but I have been a bit of a busy bee. I’m 8700 miles from home. You can’t run away from sadness but I thought perhaps I could fly.
Vietnam is now home and has been since November. I’ve returned to the teaching English game.
Life is good, and I think of M less. I saw her before I left. We talked, a long talk, hours and hours covering years and years. When we said goodbye it was final. We cried in a fairly dismal, mundane setting, on a road by a river. We kissed and we parted. 8 years ended with the touch of two lips.
I haven’t kissed any other lips since. I’m still all too aware how lips can so easily lie. Friends and food and drink keep the loneliness confined to darker corners of my mind.
M now lives in the shadows of my life, but this is good. The long shadows remind me that to my life has returned some Sun.
Is this not the true romantic feeling; not to desire to escape life, but to prevent life from escaping you.