Notes from a cold water swimmer
I’ll slip out of the ice, into the dry air, and my skin will feel aglow. A rush of pleasure will tumble across my body. The pain of the cold will disappear. By Jessica J. Lee.
We arrive in Saigon in the late afternoon. Steam rises from the eating houses; we’re submerged in the sound of voices and engines as the taxi crawls its way through the traffic. The houses on Bui Vien Street aren’t much to look at. Small and narrow, they’re pressed close together. Concrete on brick, a smattering of plaster, hints of green on the balcony. There are shops on the ground floor, and restaurants and bars offering middle-of-the-road fusion cuisine – ‘Vietnamese & European Food & BBQ’, ‘North & South Indian Food Halal & Vegetarian’ – mainly for the Western and Australian backpackers, who saunter around in their tank tops and flip flops, letting their shoulders swing loosely, as if they were by the sea rather than in the city. Asia – one enormous beach.
My travelling companion and I are staying in a simple hostel around the corner on Pham Ngu Lao Street, like most of the young tourists who turn up in the city. Nobody calls it Ho Chi Minh City, always Saigon. You can feel the name on your tongue like a taste of old Asia, like the gentle memory of an era you’ve never experienced. The absurd fantasy of a sentimental spirit. Even so, I just want to sit here and watch the tangled traffic as it flows past, eating pho, drinking beer and doing nothing. But of course it’s not that simple.
It’s the rainy season, and an evening thunderstorm breaks above the narrow streets; everything’s dripping. An opaque network of electricity cables criss-crosses the streets and pavements.
All at once, the view of the neon facades with their cheap adverts, pixelated by the rain, makes me feel incredibly melancholy. It’s our first evening in Vietnam, and it doesn’t stop raining.
It’s always the same when you travel – first you have to orientate yourself, to make the city your own, so you don’t capitulate to its size and bustle the moment you’ve finished breakfast. Our plan was to travel on foot as much as possible, which is always sensible, and only take taxis for long distances (or when the tropical climate made our temples throb, which generally happens sooner or later, especially if you’ve not had enough to drink).
We walk from the bus station to Ben Thanh market, the largest in the city. An indigo lizard darts through the grass in front of it. Schoolchildren come towards us across the field, and the girls immediately want to take photos.
‘You are handsome, but snow white,’ one of them says to my friend.
The teacher invites us to visit the school, to talk about Germany. No problem, although – well, actually, no. We don’t have time. That’s nonsense, of course, when you really think about it, but you say it anyway.
We head onwards through the traffic along Le Loi Street, then across the road. You just have to go – no-one’s going to stop for you, you learn that quickly, so you move through the people, cars and countless mopeds like a diver through a shoal of fish. Somehow, miraculously, you never actually touch anybody.
Time to jot down a few impressions. The residential architecture, plain and functional, is an extraordinary jumble: columned, three-storey kitsch in pastel green next to depressing shacks with metal gates next to clumsy modernist apartment blocks with concrete roof patios, hammocks suspended above them.
Our T-shirts are quickly soaked and there are beads of sweat on our foreheads, so we look for water (you always drink too little). Vietnam is approximately the same size as Germany, and crosses numerous climate zones as it stretches from north to south. Here in Saigon, in the south of the country, it’s always hot and humid, with the stickiness typical of the subtropics. In the north, near the Chinese border, snow falls in the winter. It’s hard to imagine.
We just walk and look, because you never know what might be interesting – that’s a charm people are slowly forgetting, I think, as a cultural skill. But if you say that you quickly get a reputation as a pessimist about progress, and bore everybody to tears.
‘Trung Nguyen Coffee’ is the Vietnamese interpretation of a Starbucks. Their ‘Mother Land Coffee’ is enhanced with ginger, honey and milk. On the prestigious Dong Khoi Boulevard, which leads down from the colonial Notre Dame cathedral to the river, are a number of old and new luxury hotels, as well as luxury boutiques – Hermès, Versace etc. Every takeaway place offers oolong tea over ice, so you can cope with going back into the sticky heat of the day.
We visit the Reunification Palace. There’s a communist tank in the square outside, and the national flag fluttering above the grass. On 30 April 1975, North Vietnamese troops forced their way into the palace and the Americans had to leave the country once and for all. It was at this moment that the ‘domino theory’ set out in US president Harry S. Truman’s famous doctrine – the practical realities of which were then unquestioningly implemented by Henry Kissinger, unnecessarily dragging out American society’s psychosis about Vietnam – finally collapsed. Vietnam, ruled for decades by foreign powers, became a socialist country.
The true goal of the war was peace, according to Richard Nixon; Vietnam still bears its traces. There’s a war museum, for instance, on the corner of Le Quy Don Street and Vo Van Tan Street, where you can see pictures of children severely deformed due to the effects of Agent Orange, and in the tunnels of Cu Chin the guerrilla tactics of the Vietcong are re-enacted like a kind of propagandistic folklore (a day trip cost us 190,000 dong – it was worth it).
Today, Saigon seems like a strange mixture of Vietnam, France and the USA, from the dishes on offer in its eateries – unbelievably tasty and good value – to the old Renaults and the main post office designed by Gustav Eiffel to the brightly lit, not-such-good-value cafes for the urban middle class. The Americans poured money into the city in order to wage their war. Saigon, of course – along with millions of individual people, each of them following their own logic – is launching itself into the future at breakneck speed.
Unlike in the West, where this certainty is increasingly being eroded, Saigon still believes that the future will bring greater prosperity for all.
You can see it in the wide-eyed children on mopeds, clinging to the backs of their parents, sisters and aunts and weaving swiftly through the alleyways, as if there’s not much time for childhood anymore.
Everywhere there’s a sense of energy, efficiency and optimism – people are friendly and goal-orientated. ‘May I help you, mister?’ ‘No problem, mister.’ In principle, the hostels can get you anything: bus tickets, day trips, foreign currency, tickets for domestic flights. It’s very convenient when, like us, you don’t have much time. Saigon charts the course for the rest of the country, raising an obvious question: is that a good or a bad thing?
In the late afternoon we find ourselves back in our neighbourhood, before it begins to rain. I’m amazed how little it disturbs me – in fact, how calming it is. The seventeen-year-old waitress in Bui Vien, where we go again this evening because the food is so delicious, is decidedly pleasant, without putting on a hypocritical show of obsequiousness. She has two jobs, she says, working in a cafe in the morning and in the restaurant from the afternoon well into the night. She never looks tired, is always cheerful, and is amused by how much we eat.
There’s no doubt Saigon has a certain magic in the evening, when it gets dark and the lights go on. The electronic billboards advertising international brands (Canon, Nikon, Sanyo) blaze above the city and its occupants, both a promise and an admonition. They shine upon the elderly people sweeping the paths in front of their shops with straw broomsticks, upon the taxi drivers with their ill-fitting shirts and doctored meters, which increase in hilariously irregular increments, and upon the prostitutes outside their bars in the Pham Ngu Lao quarter, who call after all the passers-by, ‘Where are you going?’, without realising what an existential question that is.
Where are you going?
Good question. What is there to be discovered here – not on the tourist track, but for us personally?
* * *
The night bus takes seven hours. The roads aren’t very good. Outside the window the sun is rising; there’s no chance of getting any more sleep, the mornings are much too bright. It’s bedlam on the street, with taxis drivers – in cars and on motorbikes – announcing their prices. We know which street the hostel is on, and soon we’re on our way.
Nha Trang is on the South China sea, and apparently has the charm of a straightforward beach resort. After three days in Saigon with its population of seven million or so, we like the idea of just going to the seaside and relaxing.
A kilometre-long sandy beach runs along the edge of the bay, with big hotels directly on the water for the mostly Russian guests, who use Nha Trang as a dirt cheap winter getaway. The comparison to Nice is an exaggeration. Nothing has grown here, it’s simply been thrown up.
Our hotel is bland and characterless. ‘New Day Hotel’, ‘Blue Sky Hotel’, ‘King Hotel’ – you forget the names immediately. We have a simple room, two beds and a bathroom with a shower, but it’s reasonably clean and the price is an absurd 15 dollars per night. There’s Wi-Fi, of course, like everywhere in Vietnam designed for tourists.
After we’ve had some rest, we walk along the promenade in the midday heat, but it’s so warm that we decide to postpone our swim until the morning. We just wander around for a while, as if it will lead to something happening quite naturally, as in fact it often does. Judging by the heavy clouds above the mountains in the hinterland, it’s going to rain.
We visit a temple sacred to the Cham people, an ancient culture who were largely driven out of Vietnam, and the Long Son Pagoda with its fourteen-metre-high white Buddha, who gazes enigmatically out across the city’s harbour. In a tiny shop owned by an elderly man, electric guitars hang on the walls, but it’s otherwise empty apart from a fridge and a few plastic chairs. We drink Coca-Cola and stare out into the thunderstorm that’s now drawing across the bay.
‘I am Russian, but I don’t like Russian people,’ declares the beauty at the beach bar. We order gin and tonics, as if nothing else will hit the spot. ‘See this guy,’ she says, pointing to a man, ‘he talked to me like he was my friend.’ The next morning we try chatting to some Russian holidaymakers on the beach – about football, of course – but they can’t speak a word of English, so we run out of things to say.
Maybe the Russians have the right idea – just heading out into the sun, wanting nothing more than to get a tan and show it off when they get home.
But you have to be very wise or very dull to just lie on a deckchair all afternoon without talking or reading or doing anything else.
All at once I have no idea what I’m even doing in Nha Trang. There are certainly thousands of places in the world that are more beautiful. The dazzlingly white beach, the high-rise blocks, the shops and restaurants along the streets – it’s an anonymous coastal town with all the touristic appeal of a holiday village on the Costa Brava, pockmarked with ugly buildings.
What to do? We drink coffee and talk. The day passes slowly. Another coffee, more talking. About ‘life’ and the states of mind it brings, about how this and that work out, where you think you’ve come from – metaphorically speaking – where you are now and where you want to go. All legitimate, all perfectly understandable. But that way you don’t let the outside world into your head – you’re cast back inside yourself, your thoughts gridlocked.
You need to be interested in the world, not in yourself – that’s how we should continue our trip, I think, as I sit on the beach in Nha Trang and time drags itself onwards like a man dying of thirst in the desert.
* * *
Hoi An is approximately 500 kilometres further north. Our journey there on the night bus is not as restless as last time, but perhaps that’s because at some point a profound sense of exhaustion sets in, which eventually overcomes us. We’d like to get out there and really do something, but we’re just so incredibly tired that first we look for somewhere to stay. At eight o’clock in the morning, the day is already boiling hot.
We decide on a boutique hotel, which, according to various travel blogs, caters to the needs of so-called ‘flashpackers’ – people who travel with backpacks, but feel a certain sense of entitlement as to comfort and ambience. The room in ‘Phu Thinh 2’ costs 55 dollars per night. We have a balcony, with a view over the distant mountains and a neatly laid-out pool.
Hoi An is a small museum. Except there’s nothing to exhibit.
No-one would think that the city had once been a significant centre for trade in East Asia. Today in the tourist centre there are a few isolated old Chinese department stores with colourfully adorned gables, statues of dragons, decorations, incense sticks, shrines and ornamental ponds (you can buy a ticket that gets you into all of them), and many other places, above all restaurants, cafes, bars, souvenir shops and countless tailors. All tourists get dirt cheap bespoke suits and dresses made here, but we’re not really in the mood to be measured.
We walk through the narrow streets. Once again we’re wondering what exactly there is to do. Searching for something when we don’t really know what it is we’re looking for doesn’t work, of course. In the afternoon we stop by the market square. There’s the same sense of unease at not being able to get a handle on things.
We do nothing in Hoi An but walk and eat. While this is fine elsewhere, because there’s a particular atmosphere in effect, a sense of the place as a whole, Hoi An is an empty husk. Of course, this feeling is partly down to having flown about 12 hours and spent half a day on the bus in order to get here.
When you talk to other travellers or read what they’ve written online, you often hear that Hoi An is the city they ‘liked the best’. Maybe that’s because there are Chinese lanterns lit along the banks of the Thu Bon at night, and they think this creates a ‘magical’ atmosphere. We don’t know.
In the evening we sit by the river and watch people coming and going. On the small peninsula on the other side there are lots of bars serving strong mixed drinks. They’re full of people in muscle shirts and hot pants, the dress code of the dedicated hedonist. They’re not unwelcome here.
Hoi An’s sole purpose, it seems, is so that tourists with short attention spans can saunter through and spend their money. It really doesn’t matter what’s on offer in the countless restaurants: spaghetti, pizza, baguettes, croissants, burgers and – naturally – real ‘Vietnamese cuisine’, which of course isn’t as good as actual Vietnamese cuisine, of the sort you can find in the side streets of Saigon, for instance.
Hoi An’s Vietnamese inhabitants have organised the business very effectively. You communicate what you want, someone makes a quick call, and immediately everything is arranged: the laundry, the trip to the Marble Mountains, the bike rental, the plane ticket. Hoi An is a well-oiled tourism machine, a fine calculation. The traveller takes on the role of consumer lock, stock and barrel. It’s an amusement park designed for backpacking tourists on all-inclusive holidays, an increasingly common phenomenon across the whole of South East Asia.
Hoi An also bears witness to the ‘tripadvisoration’ of a place that is supposedly a spontaneous traveller’s paradise. In every front window hangs a certificate with a rating based on the opinions of modern globetrotters, who are already booking their next hostel on their iPads. You ask yourself, when you see another guest house that’s a ‘Trip Advisor 2014 Winner’, what that’s actually supposed to mean. This proliferation of recommendations, probably self-printed, makes them lose all effectiveness as adverts. The man at the reception desk in our hotel nonetheless asks us to mention him on Trip Advisor by name.
It’s a pity that the authenticity of the place is somehow missing, even though I can’t exactly put into words what I mean by that. Suddenly I feel ridiculous, seeking an unspoilt adventure in such an thoroughly kitschy confection of a city. I’m annoyed with my own expectations.
But we’ve discovered nothing new on this journey. We’ve followed the well-trodden tourist track northwards, too ignorant or too passive to do anything else. And anyway, what’s wrong with that? When you follow the crowd you find company easily. Ultimately we, too, are just two pleasure-seeking Europeans with overly sentimental temperaments and 600 dollars’ worth of cold, hard cash in our pockets, taking advantage of the price differences in an emerging, but still comparatively very cheap, country in order to drink ourselves into a contented haze in the evening sun.
And yet I’m feeling wistful, aware of a vague sense of dissatisfaction.
Our focus turns to the next step of our journey: Hanoi, the centre of the north. We hope to find some sort of authenticity there, some part of old Vietnam that has been preserved, that’s not yet on the way – like the boomtown Saigon – to becoming a new Bangkok.
* * *
Finally, Hanoi – the characterful, culturally ambitious city. I was imagining peaceful little streets, gables, ornamental trees and cobblestones. I found something else entirely: boxy buildings, like in Saigon (though somehow more beautiful in their disorder), more electricity cables, more entropy, thousands of businesses, thousands of scooters.
We get room in a hostel in the old town, north of the Hoan Kiem Lake. The nondescript house fronts narrowly onto the street, like all the other buildings. The reception’s at the front, with a few windows, while at the back are the bedrooms, kitchen, inner courtyard, staircase and work areas.
The old town is more or less Hanoi’s main attraction. There are 36 streets, each named after the craft guild they belong to – in other words, what wares used to be sold here, and sometimes still are. In one street they only sell baskets, in another only spices, and so on.
But Hanoi, too, is in the midst of an extraordinary transformation. The facades of the houses are older at the top than at the bottom. In the upper storeys are tiny apartments with even tinier balustrades, clothes hanging up to dry on the cables, the stonework looking incredibly decayed. On the lower level are cafes like the ‘Hollywood’, modern restaurants, travel agents, souvenir shops, snack bars and hostels.
The old town doesn’t look like an old town, at least not to our eyes. We eat pho in small, tiled kitchens with plastic cartons full of chicken parts. There are sheer silk napkins on the tables, but it’s impossible to get your hands clean with them. Young people in fake Nike gear sit outside on stools and eat soup. They take out their smartphones and sit in silence.
We meet a German man in a tank top and baseball cap in Ly Quoc Sur Street, who tells us that in the evenings all the foreigners gather in Ma May Street in front of the ‘Hanoi Backpackers’. We’re still rather disorientated, so we bear this tip in mind for later.
In the afternoons the streets are still thronged with people. You amble along the pavement, get out of the way, cross the street – the traffic’s crazy. There’s nothing even approaching a pedestrian zone. The shops are crammed with electronic gadgets, baskets, carvings, chairs and tables, bowls with mother-of-pearl inlay, statuettes of the Buddha, toys and knick-knacks. An artist in his workshop is copying paintings by Botero and van Gogh.
In the evening we head over to Ma May. It’s full of people – English, German, Australian, a young man from Dubai and six Africans from Benin, who are calmly lighting up a joint as if they were relaxing outside their front door in some housing project, although they’ll certainly be well off.
This pub crawl happens every evening. In a first-floor disco, about a hundred metres from ‘Hanoi Backpackers’, they’re playing music for people to sing along to. The genre doesn’t matter – it could be anything from 50 Cent’s ‘In Da Club’ to ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis. There are people making out in the corner booths. Then it’s over. A few Vietnamese people on motorbikes lead the way to the Red River, where the party’s going to continue.
On the riverbank there’s a club that’s apparently illegal (though it can’t really be). It’s a brick shell, a DJ, a bar and a small outdoor area. This is generally where people go to pick someone up.
Two Swiss women have their sights set on us, but we’re not available, which, to be honest, makes staying in a place like this a bit pointless.
Suddenly the German man from Ly Quoc Sur Street appears. When we met him earlier in the day we thought he seemed well-travelled, with a good instinct for how to bring each day to a satisfactory conclusion. He comes towards us, alone, and says he isn’t good at ‘cold calling’. He babbles like an idiot trying to impress the Swiss women. The conversation grinds to a halt, and at some point he leaves. It’s tragic – he’s thousands of kilometres away from Germany, and he’s after nothing more than a one night stand.
The air by the river is still clammy when we decide to go back to the hostel. What did we realise today? Vietnam is a bit like Mallorca, only with monsoons and mosquitoes.
* * *
We take a trip to the famous Halong Bay, according to everything we’ve read one of the country’s greatest attractions, the setting for a James Bond film, and the highlight of every visit to Vietnam. Travelling by boat across the bay, past its limestone monoliths, makes us think of the goatee-wearing seafarers who once smuggled opium over the sea in their junks. It would make a decent setting for a pirate film.
Halong is only accessible as part of a package, including a bus trip from Hanoi, a boat tour and a night on board the ship. We took a while to decide which option was worth the money, and – as we shall see – we made the wrong choice.
After two hours the bus stops at the halfway point, where there’s an enormous souvenir market. Here they want travellers to buy factory-made handicrafts, vases four metres high and life-size porcelain tigers (how on earth are you supposed to transport them?), laughing Buddhas made of industrial plastic, bowls, dishes and table mats. The trip to Halong is also a mini shopping expedition, then.
At the harbour we head past umpteen tourist groups towards our boat.
They’ve gradually been washed away underneath, so they look as if they’re floating on the surface – as if, commanded by some angry and capricious god, they might somehow move towards each other and simply crush ships between them.
Our tour is kept to a strict schedule. We begin the afternoon by going swimming for an hour in a bay. We all troop off the ship, then all troop back on again. Then we go canoeing. After our evening meal there’s karaoke, which is indescribably irritating. The programme for the next morning is as follows: a visit to a cave, then a pearl farm where you’re welcome – do come on in! – to buy some jewellery to take home with you. Mist hangs above the cliffs as raindrops pummel the sea like gunfire.
As we’re returning to the harbour, the storm clouds once again loom threateningly above us. I go on deck and look out to sea as we drift along, listening to the rain.
The dimensions of the horizon are colossal, the rocky islands as big as houses, yet – when seen from here – tiny in comparison to the towering clouds above, huge honeycombs in shades of blue, grey, slate and white, piled on top of each other. The storm draws into view from the left, like a dark mass that swallows everything up. The few boats on the water look as if their end is nigh.
Nature herself performs the most impressive piece of theatre, not our tour guide, who just repeats the same banal phrases over and over. The most beautiful moment occurs when the actual programme of events is already over.
Perhaps this is exactly the problem when you decide to travel through Vietnam in two weeks.
Hanoi is where we end our journey. From here my companion is heading home, while I’m travelling to Cambodia. We’ll spend one more evening sitting in Bui Vien Street, and on the way there the prostitutes will ask us, ‘Where are you going?’
Is that a question you can ever really answer?
For now the question remains – what did we, personally, find in Vietnam (other, of course, than time for the kind of good conversation that can only be had with close friends, but for which we so rarely find time at home)? Or were we simply lost in Vietnam, lost in ourselves and in our expectations of this country, which wants so much to leave its past behind it and wake up tomorrow as a new Malaysia, a new Singapore?
We didn’t know what we wanted, so we simply took things as they came – a package-deal tourism industry, a country that provides an exotic setting for pleasure-seeking holidaymakers’ clumsy antics, a place where each holiday is supposedly spontaneous and unique, but which has become a thoroughly commercial product.
Was it a wasted journey? When you’re constantly part of something that at best you can’t really access and at worst you actively disapprove of, wouldn’t you be better off just going somewhere else? But what is it like there?
Maybe. But there’s a certain charm to observing reality as it truly is. It makes categories like ‘beautiful’, ‘picturesque’ and ‘authentic’ inadequate. All these qualities apply to Vietnam, but only to a certain extent.
In itself that’s not a problem – it’s just inconvenient if you only come to fully realise it at the end of your journey.
* * *
Translation by Caroline Waight