If you’d gone down to the woods last night, you’d have been sure of a big surprise. Assuming they were woods in Vietnam and you’d had the misfortune of running into my naked friend P.
You would have seen me also, because I was sitting in those woods too. I was in the middle of an almost circle of 14 friends. If you’d been half hidden behind a tree you would have seen us, surrounded by discarded empty bottles and heavenly-cherished full ones.
You’d have seen me happy too. In front of me was just about everything I generally ever need. A glass of something alcoholic, a cigarette and a i-pod with a fairly decent speaker attached.
From your hiding place, you wouldn’t have heard me. I sat listening mostly. I don’t wish to be the centre of attention, don’t like to tell long stories. I prefer to sit, and listen and lose myself a little.
Also, the music was really loud.
It was because of me. I was the amateur DJ. It isn’t easy to pick songs to please 13 people, but as someone with a sometimes crippling need to please, I did my best.
I kept it eclectic. Some Desmond Dekker , Beirut, Ernie K-Doe, Metronomy. Some classics – Lou Reed, The Kinks, Curtis Mayfield and some crowd pleasers, Elbow, Dizzee Rascal. Oh, and always, always Azealia Banks.
Every so often someone would break from their conversation to shout out to me, “Oh, I love this one!” or “This is really good, who is it?” And I would smile and realise how simply and easily I can be made to feel happy.
As I got happily, quietly drunk our friend P sank himself to new depths. Notorious for his alcohol induced idiocy, last night he went too far.
It was fine when we swam in the river during the day, and he perched his ample frame upon a rock in mermaid pose. Less Copenhagen, more coping badly. But by evening he had drank too much, and was refusing to stop. He became maudlin, and then aggressive, all the time demanding of attention.
And then he accidentally fell through one of the tents. Twice.
Having insulted several, he blundered off into the woods. As genuine and kind-hearted as he is while sober, you would have recoiled at the sight of him.
Three of us set off in pursuit, and for 3 hours we wandered around, blindly calling his name. We didn’t find him, and it wasn’t until five in the morning that he returned, naked, and accompanied by two German shepherds.
By which I mean the breed of dog, not a couple of professional sheep handlers from Munich.
P collapsed into sleep and the dogs ran off. At some point, while we cleaned up, he must have woken and left.
His nocturnal misadventures remain largely unknown, although a couple of our friends did find the women’s shower had been used as a toilet.
He’s done similar things before, but always remembers nothing. Too often in retelling him we’ve treated his antics as a joke, as amusing anecdotes.
He knows he is bad, but he doesn’t know how much. As a group of friends we’ve decided to tell P exactly what he did and that it was not funny. That he has a problem that needs to be fixed. That he cannot drink. It’s the harder thing to do, but we wouldn’t be friends if we didn’t do it.
And I came home to a message from G. She’s flown again and landed in my hometown in the UK, my hometown being not so far from hers. And I feel sad that she isn’t here. And I’m finding life harder without her presence. But life, like rivers and German shepherds, has to run on.
“In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart”
~ Anne Frank ~
Her stuff isn’t strewn around my room anymore. There are exactly 50% less ciggy butts in the ashtray, and one less glass of wine. It’s been a disgraceful, debauched and deeply lovely week.
But now it’s quiet, and empty because G is gone.
More than things, she isn’t here, and I’m even emptier than the room.
She left yesterday. Our friend P came to the airport too. He was picking up a new teacher, so the taxi on the way was free. G and me both share the benevolent luck of coming by freebies easily.
She left, and I won’t be hearing laters, taters anymore. I waved and turned and walked away and felt the physical distance grow. In the taxi back I glanced up at the sky, hoping, like a fool, to see a plane.
I filled my evening with friends and filled myself with drink. Somehow, still emptily.
And she talked of coming back, and she might, but I think it was meant to make our parting easier. I think that I know that it’s over.
It was intense and it was beautiful. Days spent entirely in this now empty room.
We talked each other inside out. Made the most of every moment. We did, for this last week, what people so often forget to do: We lived.
Her wry smile, wit and eloquence are far, far away. And it hurts that I might not see her again, to amuse and be amused, be awed and to kiss. But I’m stronger because of her. And I’ll remember when she said:
You’re gorgeous and you’re perfect.
Not true. But she thought it, and the thought was so big and uncontainable that she said it. Here in my empty room I’ll always be able to think of her and smile.
“If there’s any kind of magic in this world… it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something. I know it’s almost impossible to succeed… but who cares, really? The answer must be in the attempt”
Celine, “Before Sunrise”
We met outside a bar in a shiny neon night. There were motorbikes and street hawkers and noise and dirt and we talked alone together in a group. My friend L was there, and she sent me a text. The text said something that only a kind and caring friend could send. The text said this:
Body language signs good. Don’t fuck this up, dick.
She – G – has been the best person I could meet. You don’t see yourself with someone else when you’ve been hurt, and broken, and damaged. I didn’t.
And whisper this, but I didn’t think someone would want me. That’s the sort of thing that you really shouldn’t say. And I didn’t, but I thought it. I pushed it down but it was there.
And then I met her, and she was damaged too. Damaged, just like me. The same exact experience, though all of the names had been changed. And is there anything more blissful and reassuring than to meet another human being who understands you?
Meeting another human being who understands you, and likes you. And you like and understand them too.
Isn’t that everything that anybody has ever wanted, ever?
Now, she’s leaving. And she should go, she should. I don’t want her to go. I don’t.
It makes sense for her to leave. She hasn’t taken to ‘Nam, and a cosy little role has popped up elsewhere. But my heart is like a child that just doesn’t quite understand. And I don’t want to tell it the truth.
The worst thing I could do is fall in love with you
And I should have said, “Do it”. Because it would have spoken of our natures. Impulsive and Reckless. A bit fucked in the head. And it would have made her giggle, and I like that sound. And it would have told her how I feel. Again, I feel.
I didn’t say “Do it”. I didn’t think of those words. I lay in the bed and looked at her, and she looked at me too. I think she was thinking what I was thinking and what I was thinking was this:
Stop time, remember the now.
But memory is hard to hold. I don’t even remember what words came next. The moment, like all the other moments, was gone.
I like listening to her. She chooses her words carefully, but with seemingly no effort at all. She makes me think differently about things. She smiles, even when she’s sad.
She’s lackadaisical or passionate but never in between. There’s no concrete plan, she doesn’t know where she’ll be but she wants to learn to trapeze and she will. She floats through life like me. She’s unfazeable. She’s witty. We do silly things together every time we meet. She plays poker. I fancy the pants off her.
But we’ve been damaged, and I don’t think she wants to be damaged again. We’ve met at the right time and the wrong time too.
And she should go.
And she will go.
When she goes, I’ll think this:
Would I wish that things were different when I know all things must pass? I wouldn’t. Who would?
“And I will always wonder how it would be if we never had met,
Life would be easier though dull, I suspect,
And I’d never claim you were mine.
Just if we were words, we would rhyme.”
~ Gruff Rhys ~
There’s a certain kind of guy ever so common in Asia. They’re usually in their forties or fifties – physically in bodies of that age, mentally still trapped in the decades.
They waddle toad like down streets in their socks and sandals, bellies stretching taut the cotton of their cheap plain t-shirts.
Sometimes their shuffling stops at the approach of a pretty Asian girl. They size them up with a smile they probably imagine to be Jack Nicolson-esque. They may try to block her path with a sidestep, grinning lasciviously.
And they hate Western women. Loathe, blame and despise them.
I read a lot about misogyny and feminism. It might be common for men to concern themselves with these topics, I’ve no idea, but it should be. There have recently been some fantastically well written things, insightful, nuanced thoughts and, on the other side, petulant childlike fear masquerading as noble anger.
They have made me think about my responses to the misogyny I’ve heard directly. Not every older Western man in Asia is a wrinkly Vampire, but a sizeable percentage are, with views as deeply unpleasant and vile as any I’ve ever encountered.
What is the best response to this bewilderingly bitter idiocy?
My first experience was at a bar. My friend L and I were happily in the middle of a late night drinkathon, getting ourselves better acquainted with Johnny Walker. A small Australian – in every sense of the word – whispered in my ear.
Essentially he asked why I was bothering with a Western woman when so many Vietnamese girls were ‘way less work’.
We fell into conversation, and it didn’t come as a huge shock to find him no Oscar Wilde in the wit department. He refused to believe that L and I were friends. The notion of talking to a woman without the wish to have sex with her apparently alien to him.
He waxed lyrical on the appeal of Vietnamese girls – half his age and they don’t talk back. He’d prefer not to pay, but he didn’t mind doing so.
Then he moaned and complained and went on and on about Western women. Apparently they moan and complain and go on and on, which isn’t something men do.
He slapped my shoulder manfully and stared at me almost fatherly, while I struggled not to empty my stomach all over him. (Nothing to do with the drink, I swear). He looked into my eye and told me we were the same.
I looked back and told him that we really weren’t. From there, the conversation went downhill.
No, I don’t think women in the West are in a position of power I told his incredulous looking puffy fat face. At first, he put it down to my youth, condescendingly telling me that I’d learn. Pretty soon his plastic-spoon-sharp wit had deduced that I could only be a homosexual to have such ‘prissy’ views.
It might be nice to live in such a black and white world, where everything is so simple.
The first of a number of similar encounters. As a man, the worst of it is their notion that we are just the same. They like to whisper conspiratorially to you, like Eric Idle’s Mr Nudge, apparently safe in the knowledge that I’ll agree with their rancid opinions purely because we have the same genitals.
A 51 year old recently told me of the trouble he was having with a Vietnamese woman he was dating:
“I said to her, you’re 28. No-one is going to want you after you’re 30. If I wanted, I could date a 21, 22 year old. I’m being really nice sticking with you.”
Roses are red,
violets are blue,
do everything I tell you or
I’ll blackmail you.
I tried to explain how his words sounded, but he just didn’t seem able to grasp it.
I suppose trying to correct him is all that you can really do because, even if it is seemingly a waste of time, it’s better than saying nothing at all. I’ll happily take suggestions however, if anyone has any other suggestions.
A mother takes twenty years to make a man of her boy, and another woman makes a fool of him in twenty minutes.
~ Robert Frost ~
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.