Draft extract from the final chapter of my travel memoir
Lord give me a song that I can sing* Ho Chi Minh City
*Geography of the Moon who you can read about here
The man at the bus stop in Da Lat asked us if we lived in Ho Chi Minh City. We marvelled at the possibility. There are ex pats. There are digital nomads. There are retirees. There are people with all sorts of businesses. It’s not that strange but at the same time, the thought that it could be us seemed somehow hard to believe. And yet he thought it. And yet, of course, it’s possible.
In Nha Trang we’d sat in a restaurant and checked the booking for HCMC. We realised we’d booked somewhere with no WiFi- since almost everywhere has WiFi, it was easy to forget to check. It was quite hard to find cheap places in HCMC and certainly they all seemed pretty small- I wondered was it a dense population, like Tokyo, with space at a premium? Anyway after quite a while of searching we re-booked a small but nice looking room.
When we arrived in HCMC we realised we’d forgotten something again and not got our own bathroom; we hadn’t always had our own bathroom on the trip, but it is nice to have, plus we thought, it was our last place. Not only that, the place was very hostel-y; and our room was actually one of two small private rooms off the main dorm, which meant we had to go through the dorm, right to the back, and through a door on the right to enter.
A balcony ran along the back of the dorm and past our window too. Our room had looked grey in the photographs, in real life it was unfinished with bare concrete floors, albeit with a nice rug and a comfy futon bed, a clothes rail and a desk. It didn’t help that the key to our room stuck and didn’t work so that we had to go in and out via the balcony doors. So we were a bit disappointed, and thought about moving, especially as the first night was very loud outside; below the hostel was a restaurant bar with people outside late.
But it turned out okay, as always. There’s a sense of having to bed in to a new place. We got used to the room and stopped being bothered about the lock, and the staff were really friendly.
I had been anxious about the shared loos, only three toilets for all those people but there was hardly ever anyone else in the bathroom area. Sometimes there were young women in there playing music, I wondered if it was a privacy thing, like in Japan? And later we even enjoyed the noise outside or at least appreciated it.
The dorm room had eighteen beds in it, you could even stay as a couple sharing one, occasionally walking through I caught glimpses through slightly open curtains, people had made like nests with food etc, like hutches, could one live like that all the time, I wondered?
Inside we had AC as powerful as we wanted, outside on the balcony it was hot hot hot and dusty. From the fridge downstairs I bought ‘big water,’ Sprite and beer and took them upstairs and onto the balcony. Such a pleasure, those things, and looking out, smoking, and watching the people below and passing by.
Again, breakfast was included, I only went down a couple of times, huge chunks of French bread, and black coffee. Anthony said that one of the biggest differences between when he went travelling twenty years ago and now, was the phones. We had a smart phone, Anthony did the booking of accommodation, trains and buses etc, and it was very useful. But at breakfast, in the open area at reception, we looked around, no one talking to each other, everyone on their phones. So when a man walked in, looking around for somewhere to sit, it was us who made eye contact and ended up sitting and chatting with him, as we were the only ones not looking down at a phone. He was tall, which confused me at first, as I hadn’t thought of Chinese people being tall, and casually dressed in shorts and a faded pale blue t shirt, the other Chinese people I’d seen had been smartly dressed. Plus, he was on his own, and the others had been in big groups. He was the first and only Chinese person we met. He said he had made his money already and now came for several months of the year to Vietnam to eat the healthy food; he often went to the market and bought a kind of vegetable/fruit that looked like a potato, he cut me a slice of it, I wasn’t that impressed, it tasted similar to raw potato to me. He explained that the food in China is poisoned; the air is polluted. He told us about a Chinese dissident, now living in the US, who is on YouTube, who speaks the truth about China, and who he believed would be the one to change everything. You can’t say anything against the government, maybe nothing happens then, but it is noted, and one day it comes back to you. He said it used to be hard for Chinese citizens to get a passport, now it is much easier, hence the huge rise of Chinese tourists.
There was the feeling of things to do, a kind of anxiety. In Nha Trang we were low, in DaLat we were high, here, it was more balanced, about practical things, shopping for warm clothes and presents. ‘Just do what’s in front of you’ (method of dealing with anxiety). It felt still, in the eye of the storm, it (home) upon us, surreal…
We walked to the night market, past very expensive looking creatively decorated hotels, everywhere lively, busy, vibrant. On the way back we walked through a public park, there were huge fallen leaves on the ground. A crystal meth addict stumbled around near a bench. There was music in a pavilion, with formal dancing lessons going on, young people, then in the next pavilion, older people doing dancing lessons. In the streets there were people of all ages out late, eating cheap food, drinking cheap beer. It seemed easy for people to be out having fun, socialising and enjoying themselves in the evening. Of course, being somewhere where it is dry and warm late into the night helps to make this possible. HCMC had a nice vibe, people seemed happy. ‘We could live here for two weeks a year,’ we said; ‘Phnom Penh for a month, India and the UK for the rest of the time.’
For more photographs of HCMC see previous blog
Thank you very much for reading!
Sold house, left career, gave away almost everything else. Went travelling with my husband for a year, mostly in India. Here are my India highlights. Currently in the UK, living on a narrowboat and finishing a book about the trip, a spiritual/travel memoir, extracts from which appeared regularly on this blog.