Back to the Past II: Vietnam & Cambodia
Smell is a powerful sense. I’m sitting in my office in Suzhou and I just need to spray the mosquito repellent on my legs to transport my mind to a guest house room in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, five and a half years ago. The heat, even though it was January. The tiny room with green walls. Sharing a bed with Anna. The funerary music coming from the house in front (someone had just died). The bipolar lady that owned the guest house. The smell makes me remember it all quite vividly. Because it was during my trip to Vietnam that I used this particular brand of mosquito repellent for the first time, so there is some connection in my brain linking that country to this purplish colored liquid.
I haven’t travelled around Asia as much as I should have. I didn’t go to many places during my years as a student in Beijing; I “wasted” most of my holidays going back to Spain to visit my then boyfriend. Now that I’m working I don’t have much time to go anywhere.
This trip to Vietnam and Cambodia was probably the biggest adventure I had undertaken in my whole life (well, if we exclude moving to China) and it was also the longest trip I’d ever done (it still is). 26 days backpacking in Vietnam from north to south, then Cambodia, then Vietnam again from south to north on a 30 hour train ride from HCMC to Hanoi.
Finding a good travel companion is probably one of the most difficult things in life. You will have to be together 24/7, agree on the things to do, places to go, foods to eat, timings… With Anna I found the perfect travel mate. We always agreed on what to do and where to go. We were the perfect team: I was the shy brunette having crazy ideas and she was the outspoken blonde doing the talking. We shared everything, even the bed sometimes. We were laughing the whole time. It was a lot of fun, our adventure.
We departed from the tiny Nanyuan Airport in Beijing on a grey and cold January morning, to arrive to Nanning, in the southern Chinese province of Guangxi, in the afternoon; then the morning after we took a bus to Hanoi. It was cheaper than flying directly from Beijing. I think we spent around 8 hours in the bus, including the border crossing procedures, and we made friends with an American guy who was also in our bus. Alex was his name, I still have him on facebook. Did we share a room with him in the youth hostel in Hanoi? Maybe, I don’t really remember. Man, that hostel room was so humid and damp, that I still remember.
Hanoi reminded me of Shanghai’s French Concession, but a poorer and dilapidated version. The tree-lined streets, the houses. There were so many motorcycles! And food stands with tiny stools on the street. Oh, and French bread! That was something quite uncommon in our Beijing neighbourhood so it was a delightful surprise.
The Lonely Planet Guide to South Asia on a Shoestring said that we should look for a place called Sinh Cafe and book our bus tickets with them. When we arrived to Hanoi, we found out that ALL the travel agencies were called Sinh Cafe and even sported the same logo. We couldn’t find the real deal so we just went to one at random; they all offered basically the same services. We bought a one-way bus ticket that allowed to get off and on in several cities across the Vietnamese coast: Hanoi, Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Ho Chi Minh City. I don’t know if there were more options, those were the places we visited. We would spend a couple of days in each place.
In Hoi An we went to a wet market in the afternoon; the vendors were having a New Year party. Suddenly we had beers in our hands and someone pointed the karaoke microphone at us. It seems they only had one English song, some old tune by Abba that went “Happy New Year, Happy New Year”. None of us could sing it and the vendors seemed disapointed for a while, but they were quite drunk and happily forgot about it while we were dancing with them.
I snorkelled for the first time in my life in Nha Trang. It was also the first time I wished I wasn’t shortsighted. I like wearing glasses but I didn’t like missing some underwater creatures; I still could see a lot of things though (it seems I see better under water). Fortunately now I own a pair or prescription swimming googles (thanks, Decathlon!) so that won’t be a problem anymore.
Someone had just died in the house in front of our guest house in Ho Chi Minh City. That was how we got to experience the mourning traditions in Vietnam: the coffin was there, in the living room in the ground floor, with a picture of the deceased and the doors of the house opened for everybody to see; there were some old men playing funerary music since early morning and well into the evening. The mourning ceremony lasts for five days and the old men play during the whole five days. We could hear them from our room.
One day we went out for a walk and got lost. It got dark and we didn’t know where we were; it wasn’t a central or well illuminated district. We came across a small fun fair. In the end we must have found the way home, I didn’t really remember how.
From HCMC we took a bus to Phnom Penh. I like crossing borders, sometimes you can really feel the difference between two countries, even though it is a distance of just a few hundred meters. This was one of those occasions. Cambodia is completely different from Vietnam and you can tell it just by crossing the border.
Our tuk-tuk driver and guide in Siem Reap was a guy about our age. His name was Kin. During the day he was driving us around the temples and at night he was taking us out for beers. He even invited us to his aunt’s home to have dinner on Chinese New Year’s Eve. We took our shoes off, sat on the floor and ate the simple and delicious food prepared by his aunt. Kin was very nice to us, in the end he didn’t even want to take our money. But of course we had to pay him for his driving services! He sent me an email a couple of months ago. He studied Korean and is now working in Korea. He had told us it was not easy to get a passport in Cambodia, but he made it.
After a brief stop in Phnom Penh we headed back to Vietnam and took a 30 hour train from HCMC to Hanoi. The longest train ride of my life! It was very interesting though. We had two bunk beds in a compartment for four people; the other two people kept changing as they arrived to their stations, so we met a lot of people. Most of them were Vietnamese and couldn’t speak a word of English; we couldn’t speak Vietnamese but had a book with a few sentences. With that, lots of smiles, and games, we made a lot of friends. One was a Vietnamese guy who was a pilot, or so we understood. He ended up saying the only words he knew in English: “I love you” and “Marry me”. We also had a Chinese-Australian, a very nice guy named Lance. The three of us ended up playing cards with a bunch of Vietnamese that started coming to our compartment. Vietnamese are like Chinese, they love gambling and playing cards.
When I think of this trip the first thing I remember is not the sights. It’s being with Anna and meeting lots of people. Most of them were brief encounters, maybe just a few words with the motorbike guy offering to take us, or a kid on the street.
We made friends with drivers, waiters, children, men drinking on the street, Chinese travellers… I think that is what made our trip special: the people we met.