Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Travelers' Tales

When you travel with someone you create your own story. When you travel alone it gives you a chance to listen to the stories of others.

I heard Tom's story at a bar called 1/2 Man 1/2 Noodle. Tom is a freelance computer programer. He came from San Francisco to Vietnam four years ago to get away from George Bush's America. He says he might go back home if Barack Obama becomes president. I don't think he will. He's too comfortable living with the Vietnamese girl he married. He's too comfortable telling me how the bar we're in got its name: "The owner named it after a British cult band called Half Man Half Biscuit. They became unpopular in the eighties; they were never popular. As to how the band got its name, that I couldn't tell you." Tom is too comfortable living half American half native to go anywhere, I conclude.

Curtis did not come here to get away from anything. His advertising job brought him here. But once he got here he liked the place enough that he changed employers so he could stay on. Now he explains to me his belief that each advertising agency has a different character. His view is that they continue to channel the persona of their sometimes long-dead founders. As the conversation rapidly becomes morbid I turn my attention to Miss Hien.

Hien had no need to escape to Hanoi - she was born here. The escape that she does seek has come to her in the form of an Australian engineer. Six months ago he arrived in the country to help set up its power infrastructure. Now Hien hopes to wed him so that when he goes back home he'll take her along.

And so the stories twirl around me in an erratic choreography. A young Czech explains to a bored German how he once nearly got arrested for riding a motorcycle without a helmet. A cheery young student tells me how he came from his village to Hanoi to study economics, and how he dreams of earning enough money so he can travel to China. The proprietor of the Hue Cafe serves me exquisite Vietnamese coffee and tells me I look like his mathematics teacher. I wonder if his teacher has purple hair.

The time I've spent in Hanoi has been an utterly absorbing interlude. Now I'm ready to go back home and resume my own story.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Of Sidewalks and Serenity

There is a state of mental calmness that once you attain it, it helps you transcend all your anxieties. I entered this state today on the streets of Hanoi. For long minutes I stood on a sidewalk watching a torrent of scooters, motorcycles and bicycles. I was waiting for the traffic to abate for just a few seconds so that I could cross the road. It didn't. After a while I sank into the moment and my legs started ambling across the road of their own accord.

And just as if we were sharing a single collective consciousness, the traffic gently opened up a gap just large enough to surround me. I floated accross it like a bubble drifting on the surface of a pond. When I made it to the other side without so much as a brush with the tide of two-wheelers, I knew that I had fully phase-shifted into my Vietnam vacation.

A little later I was leaning back into a tiny plastic chair. I was on one corner of an intersection; I could see other travelers similarly settled in on the other street corners. A nice old lady poured me a 25cent glass of beer out of a keg through a slighltly dubious little plastic hose. She poured another one for the old Vietnamese gentleman sitting in the chair next to mine. We sipped our beers very slowly in a lazy silence. I came out of my reverie intermittently to take pictures of the world as it passed by us.

After a while the heat of the afternoon had abated a little. I stirred myself to saunter back to my hotel. I think I like it here.