Vietnam is the kind of romance that just happens; one that no one remembers a specific date for; the kind that lingers longer than initially expected; and if you are as (un)fortunate as I have been on this trip, Vietnam is a ride that leaves battle scars— on both knees and elsewhere.
I write this on the flight out of Saigon, before the revelry escapes my recollection. I doubt if any of my future trips, or my next stop on this holiday for that matter, will ever eclipse Nam. But I am no stranger to how the human heart blurs remembrance, diffusing the tangible into sighs, scents and a faint sense of sobriety.
HANOI was hushed. In the mornings, she was blanketed of mist. In the afternoons, of fog.
The idea of how an almost still city is actually the seat of power of an entire country was arresting.
Even at the airport’s jam-packed arrival hall, the busy markets of the Old Quarter, and in motorcycle-laden streets, there was a shared and almost dreamlike silence. I walked most days with the ant-like precision of local scooters, accelerating and braking in what seemed like an internal rhythm.
While nights were spent downing big jugs of Bia Hoi while perched on sidewalks, mornings were those of Pho Bo, piping hot and spicy, enjoyed on rooftops.
HALONG BAY, even without dragon stories, was a legend in itself. It wasn’t even the splatter of limestone karst jutting out of cerulean waters that held my fancy captive. Rather, it was how nature mastered the art of revelation in that particular chunk of the planet.
My twilights were spent paddling around edges of islets, only to be ushered to hidden sandbars, secret lagoons and cosy coves. I celebrated ascents to hilltops with panoramic views of the bay, and was taken aback in awe upon descent to caves, so huge, entire kingdoms were housed, sparkling against the dimness.
MAI CHAU was a trip back home, to my grandfather’s eternity of rice fields on the foothills of Western Visayas in the Philippines. The homestay where I spent a night in was reminiscent of my family’s ancestral bungalow, with slabs of waxed wood as floor and windows that opened to sights of buffalos ploughing the fields.
I left early in the morning, while the whole town was still asleep, lulled by a patchwork of popcorn clouds. Looking through the bus window, I mouthed a quiet farewell, clutching a memory from the night before’s dinner: deep-fried grasshoppers and snake (semen) whiskey.
PHONG NHA was a discovery I initially intended never to share to the universe. Fencing the surface of the town is Asia’s longest network of karst landscape. Snaking through underground, meanwhile, is Earth’s biggest and oldest cave system.
But I thought of the effect Phong Nha Ke Bang has for seekers like me; how responsibility became an almost automatic response upon the reckoning that it was truly a privilege to have experienced the place.
That, plus a plateful of the world’s best pork barbecue, buckets of Sleazy Tiger, and an afternoon of crawling one’s way out of underground mud pools.
HUE flirted in broad daylight. It was a quick stop: a fling whose highways were dusty; sun-baked against lush, green vegetation. Female bikers, in varsity jumpers, floral skirts and the occasional office heels, added specks of colour in an otherwise dichromatic canvass.
A flamboyant local guide, Mr. Quang, sang his way as he led my tour group around the remnants of The Citadel, Hue’s Imperial City and up the hill to Thien Mu Pagoda, which, at seven storeys, is the tallest religious building in the country.
Under the noontime sun, sporting the conical glory of a Non La, armed with some of Mr. Quang’s contagious flair, I flirted to Hue back.
HOI AN was the catch; the conflict in an otherwise wholesome story. It started off innocently— an early morning trip to the wet market, a basket boat ride to a village of mangroves, and a sumptuous feast cooked while necking cans of overpriced Larue beer on the side.
But somewhere between the trip to the tailors and Banh Mi-gobbling, Infinity Bar happened. There was no surprise at how a night that began with four cocktail buckets and twelve tequila shots ended. But all I could recall was after downing my nth shot of Jager Mojito, I hopped on a motorcycle and took blurry selfies with the driver.
The next morning, however, I was told a story: the girls in my group sucked and blew shisha from and to the mouths of each other. Whether or not there were guys who joined in on the fun, the answer stayed in Hoi An, in a bar called Infinity, not far from the historic Japanese bridge.
NHA TRANG was proof that good travel stories weren’t always about places. The city was sterile, like a piece of Russia misplaced in the coast of rural Vietnam. Dark clouds hovered over the sea on most days, cloaking the view of a supposed theme park, suddenly eerie from a distance.
But a boat trip changed all that. Bored from the weather being a let-down, my friends and I rushed to the roof deck and jumped in the water. When the boat captain, a doppelgänger of Morgan Freeman, failed to coax us back aboard, he hopped on a round plastic boat and doubled as a bartender, giving away bottomless shots of orange vodka. (Time stamp: 2PM)
Later that night, I donned on a shit shirt from Hoi An and partied hard, only to strip it—and the rest of my clothes— off, and ran to the sea, piss drunk but happy. (Time stamp: 2AM)
DA LAT was a testimony in itself, sovereign from the string of narratives I have gathered along the way.
I lived beside a market that never slept, in a French town embraced by a forest of pine trees. Further down the road from my hotel, was a family-owned coffee shop that served robusta from weasel poo. I downed 3 shots of espresso one afternoon, after a return cable car ride, marvelling the city from above. I didn’t sleep that night, nursing palpitations from caffeine overdose.
In the midst of everything else stood Woody, a little haven of coffee and cocktail. I chanced upon the bar one time, after an enjoyable dinner of fried frog and rice wine. In the same bar, and I should tweet Haruki Murakami this, I met a non-fiction version of Takahashi.
Had I not already found my ever after, I would not have let that midnight, and Takahashi, go.
SAIGON aptly cradled my greatest Vietnam (mis)adventure. And a bit more.
After a day of choking back tears in the tunnels of Cu Chi and poring over photographs— that of the Napalm Girl the longest— at the Vietnam War Museum, I rushed to hail a cab home.
I was mulling over, still believing in the innate goodness of humanity despite what I just saw, when my brooding was interrupted by the taxi meter running a marathon before my eyes.
Quick-thinking, third-world training and a bit of Police drama saved me from paying 800% more than the average fare and a possible dead body. Mine.
Anyway, bent on not letting a frightening experience hamper my Saigon story, I spent one last time with my friends and splurged on signature cocktails on the helipad of the Bitexco Skyscraper–identical to that of Tony Stark’s— before a dying sun, my last in Vietnam.
A couple of other bars later, I found myself in Bui Vien, Ho Chi Minh’s backpacking district, hoping to see someone, one last time. When that didn’t happen, and when it was time to say goodbye to everyone, I found myself face to face with the hottest person in my tour group.
“What memory would you like to take with you, Ariane Isabel?” He asked.
My answer, I suppose, was exactly what the boy wanted. But I promised never to tell.