Tag Archives: vietnam

Injuries and Returns

This is the eleventh in a series of posts running throughout 2015 and 2016 about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about hurting myself and returning to Australia.

This post flows on from the previous entry where towards the end of 2008, at the tender age of 21, I was faced with the choice of renewing my business VISA and continuing teaching in Vietnam or returning to Australia.  I had just come out of an unfortunate employment situation, deciding I needed to head into the remote northwest region of Vietnam to think things over.  This was to be the first time I had entered the highlands of Southeast Asia proper – apart from the Dalat region.

It was my first zomian experience, which only gained significance later when I ended up spending so much more of my time traveling and researching in the mountains of Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and India. I had never heard of zomia in 2008.

I decided that I needed a dirt bike to do the Northwest Highlands of Vietnam “properly”.  The only problem was that I had never ridden a big beefy bike, only having experience with the automatic-hybrid step-through motorcycles so prevalent in Vietnam at that time.  But I had quickly learned to ride those nimble beasts in the monstrous traffic of Ho Chi Minh City so I thought I should also be capable of wrangling a manual dirt bike on mountain roads … with no guard rails or hospitals … for miles …  just fine!

Made perfect sense at the time.

There came recommended to me a gentleman north of the Red River who rented out Honda XRs at reasonable rates, something like US$20 per day, so I headed to him and explained my intention.  I would go on a nice big loop clockwise from Hanoi, aiming for about eight days, but open to whatever came my way.  He provided me with a Honda XR for a test ride and I zoomed off onto the Red River bridge.  Or tried to.  It was, just like my first time on a Honda Dream in Saigon, a baptism by fire. I stalled several times and nearly collided with literally all phenomena.

When I decided I could vaguely control this new strange motorised horse I sealed the deal and prepared my bags.  I didn’t have any real ambitions for the trip except to come to a decision about my residence: Should I stay or should I go?  I took my hardcover atlas with me and plotted out ideas.  I decided I was very keen on visiting Dien Bien Phu, having read so much about it in the context of the French wars and 1954.  At that time Võ Nguyên Giáp was still alive and everything resonated, the locals in Hanoi were definitely less friendly than in Saigon and I felt intoxicating history all around me.

Off I went, bag strapped down, shorts and thongs at the ready.

It was a delightful trip for the first few days.  I met some lovely farmers, a friendly Swedish family on a random red mud road and more buffalo than I could count.  Eventually I made it to Dien Bien Phu just as I ran out of money.  There were no ATMs, so embarrassingly I had to borrow some cash from a friendly chap I met at my hotel, with the proviso that when I got to Sapa I would withdraw cash at a certain bank and deliver the reimbursement, in USD, to a friend of his.

I felt like a right heel for not packing enough hard currency, but then mistakes happen.  In my travels since I have never repeated the situation.  Cash is king. Surplus cash is surplus king.

The lush green of the Cao Bang foothills and Ha Giang passes were a welcome sight after powering through Sapa and Lao Cai.  One mountain path in particular sticks in my mind.  I was purposefully getting off the “main” roads whenever possible, using farmer’s walking paths to cut over mountains and over rivers.  The trail I most remember was barely two feet wide with sheer wet drops into the valley below.  It was mostly stone, presenting different manoeuvring challenges to the dry dirt I usually encountered.  Most importantly, there were no people – and the views were incredible.  Given my novice nature, I managed to stack the motorcycle several times, including twice in sheer mono mode, falling backwards with the bike landing on top of me.  It hurt.

But these small stacks were not enough to deter me.  Instead, I needed The Big Stack for that.

The Big Stack happened in Cao Bang.  It had rained all day and the flat rock road was slick.  I was being very careful, tummy full of noodles, sunglasses down and poncho flickering in the wind.  For some reason I was wearing shorts and flip flops instead of pants and boots.  The stack came at a seemingly normal corner that I misjudged, it was low speed, but the way the bike slid out from under me meant that my knee and foot sliced across sharp rock face, cutting open gashes on the top of my right foot and knee.

It hurt like hell, but thankfully I had some iodine and bandages.  I was about a kilometre from a village, so I walked the bike back and tried to explain the situation.  I was told there was a hospital at the top of a nearby hill, so I walked up some wet grass to an open building with a handful of people huddled inside, vacant expressions all around.  There was no staff, no equipment, weird stains on the floor and … like I said, lots of vacant, mildly disturbing expressions. Many people seemed to have skin conditions.

I’m not sure what kind of hospital it was, but it couldn’t help me.

Looking at my atlas I judged I was about eight hours from Hanoi.  It was nearly sunset.   The skin flap hanging from my knee worried me the most and the joint was beginning to throb harshly, regularly. 

I had been riding for over a week and made a stupid mistake.  It was time to head back to the big city.

That night’s ride was one of the most challenging I’ve ever experienced, and put me in good stead for the hard rides of the future.  The road was nearly all dirt, nearly all being chewed up by night roadworks and nearly all pockmarked with huge ditches and pot holes.  To make matters even worse, the headlight on my motorcycle was so ineffectual it basically didn’t work.  It took ten hours to get to Hanoi, a steady stream of blazing construction lights, pitch black jungle, shitty gravel, stinging pain and suffering.

The one levity I found was picking up a hitchhiker and driving him a few kilometres down the road at around midnight.  He was a nice guy.  I don’t know why he was out on the roads of nowhere at the middle of the night.

By the time I got to Hanoi at 3AM I worked out I had been riding for sixteen hours that day, if you counted the time before I hurt myself.  I rang a mate to see if I could crash with him – he was out at Solace, a nightclub on a boat permanently docked at the river, but he had left his room open for me.  I pulled up, lugged out my pack, stumbled inside and collapsed.  My wounds subsequently both got infected and I still have the scars today.

The next morning I decided I would return to Australia – for now.  So I bought the new laptop I had been putting off buying, flew to Saigon to settle some affairs and then shot back to the antipodes.  I immediately started working full time in the depths of a Melbourne winter, waking at 5AM every day and commuting through empty streets and empty trains.  The contrast with hyper busy Vietnam was massive and it took quite some time to adjust. But I had made my pho, and had to swim in it.

Phuoc and the Ngoc Lam

This is the ninth in a series of posts running throughout 2015 and 2016 about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about friendship.

This story begins on my very first day in Southeast Asia.

It was February 16, 2008 and I had spent the last six months studying for my undergraduate degree while working part-time in a newsagency, scrimping as much money together as I could for the imminent adventure. I was off to teach English at the Marketing University of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, having never set foot in a non-English speaking country before.

I had read the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam backwards twice in anticipation, as well as many Wikipedia entries, novels and history books. I also specialised in Vietnamese cinema studies in 2007, going deep into the U.S. war zeitgeist and the films of Tran Anh Hung in particular. I felt like I had done a thorough job of preparing myself – and in retrospect I guess I did.

The night before boarding the plane I went out on the town with two of my best friends, a couple of guys I’d known since I was 14 and had lived in sharehouses with. We got far, far too drunk; I ended up vomiting and being driven to the airport by my mother feeling downright seedy. Mum and the two mates waved me off, I boarded the plane, buckled in and tried to sleep.

When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City I was immediately drawn in by the heat, the traffic, the smells – I loved it. Instant love. And this was even before I partook in the coffee, beer and food culture.

I caught a taxi from the airport to the Ngoc Lam Hotel on Ly Phuong Kiet and was met by a young porter named Phuoc. Slightly built and with a trendy haircut, I had to almost fight him off as he persisted in trying to carry my backpack. We struggled in the lobby.

“Really, it’s OK!” I implored.

“No Mr Luke, you must let me,” his implacable response resounded, hands darting around my pack, pinching my skin. Little did I know this was going to be the first of many awkward interactions I would have with Phuoc. After capitulating and taking me into my room he said, a little weirdly, and flanked by further pleasantries:

“If there’s anything I can help you with, anything, please, it’s OK. Anything.”

I’ve met my fair share of overzealous people but Phuoc was right up there.

As I settled into the city in the coming weeks I got to know him a bit better. He made constant requests to meet for coffee, and given I was fresh to the scene, I was happy to go along and learn about the city. He showed me some nice places like Nirvana (no longer around) and told me about his life and troubles. Although working at the hotel every day, Phuoc was actually a qualified hairdresser and dreamed of opening a salon overseas. He was also flamboyantly homosexual, which was not easy in Ho Chi Minh City.

Our friendship peaked after about two months when he decided to get to the point. He asked me if I could help him immigrate to Australia by pretending to be his homosexual spouse. We would need to take a lot of photographs, get statutory declarations etc. He had done his research and gave me a package of paperwork. In return, he would give me US $20,000. The offer had a real sense of gravity to it, like Phuoc had always been paving the way to this, that this was a culmination.

I said no.

But Phuoc was reluctant to take that as a final answer. I shielded him off from my other friends and had coffee with him a couple more times, but it got to the point where I had to stop responding to his phone calls and requests to meet. That nearly put an end to it. Nearly.

A month later I was dropping a visiting friend off at her hotel after drinks. It turned out that she was staying at the Ngoc Lam Hotel, where Phuoc worked. I figured that if I was stealthy, I may not see him – or he may not see me. But if we had to interact it shouldn’t be a big deal given the hotel was his workplace. He was hardly going to implore me to be his pretend spouse in the lobby of his employer.

In the end we said goodbye out the front and I rode off without a hitch. A large set of traffic lights are just north of the hotel on Ly Thuong Kiet, and as I was cutting across the city to my place in Tan Binh (through Little Korea town, the alley with the dog carcasses, the two canals that were blacker than black, and the …. Ah, now I miss Vietnam!) I had to go through them. So there I sat waiting in the throng of motorbikes, Honda Dreams and Future Neos and Super Dreams and Waves and all manner of aspirational two-wheeled revolutionaries, listening to the humming of the engines.

Then something else.

“Luke! Luke!” I clearly heard my name above the road noise, coming from behind me, not too far away. I turned my head slowly. There, less than five metres behind, dressed in his gaudy hotel uniform, helmetless and grinning, was Phuoc. But as anyone familiar with Saigon traffic can attest, five metres is a long way when you’re crunched in the middle of motorcycles. He couldn’t reach me, nor I him.

I had two choices. I could have been the better human, smiled, pulled over and reasoned with Phuoc. Perhaps he was going to apologise, let bygones be bygones, say he would never mention the marriage plan ever again. If I had of been a little older, a little more patient, I think I would have done this. Instead, when the traffic light changed I rode off – and fast.

This is how I came to be involved in my first real motorcycle chase. A chase with stakes, imagined or otherwise. He pursued me. I ran from him. Through Little Korea, countless alleys, across bridges, around corners, along footpaths I chugged my little scooter away from the figment of desperation. I only heard his voice once more, at another intersection, when he must have gotten close. It was an absurd situation.

When I had left Phuoc behind a corner at one point I turned into a street that had a large dumpster in it and took a risk out of the movies. I stopped behind the dumpster, in a very tight wedge, and waited. Phuoc rode past, his eyes forward. It was hard to tell, but I don’t think he was smiling. I remember a face of intense concentration. An antagonist.

I wheeled my bike out, rode off in the opposite direction and took a long, complicated route home.

As an emblem of privilege in developing countries I have been approached many, many times to facilitate immigration, but never has it been so drawn out nor so dramatic as that first time. Phuoc prepared me well. And I remain more than a little ashamed, but I was learning.

Blame the Victim

This is the eighth in a series of posts running throughout 2015 and 2016 about living, teaching, travelling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about a monkey.

Something I found confronting on my first trip to a relatively poor country was what I initially perceived as the transactional basis of human relationships. This can be argued as part of all relationships everywhere depending on power dynamics (and more fundamentally, ideology) but I felt as a young man in Vietnam, 2008 for the first time that many people who may have considered me “friends” were merely cultivating relationships based on give and take, on favours, rather than from a personable bond or closeness.

Early on in my tenure I found myself on a trip out to Can Gio, a mangrove and beach area just south of Saigon, as a result of one of these relationships –I was never quite sure if I was being “used” or if I was the recipient of real generosity, I still hadn’t quite learned how to go with the flow.

Mrs. Hoa, a woman who worked in administration at the Marketing University in which I taught, had offered to take me to Can Gio with her daughter and her daughter’s friend in order to practice English with them. It was a lovely outing – I was very spoiled, we went speedboating through the mangroves, ate luscious fruits on the beach and I genuinely enjoyed coaching the girls on their spoken English.

The monkeys, however, were challenging.

Which is a shame as I had loved the creatures ever since I went to the Melbourne Zoo as a child and saw a squirrel monkey for the first time, and I’ve had many pleasing primate experiences subsequently. But this particular trip was a firm introduction to their potential for cheek.

In the car on the way out to Can Gio we discussed what was to come.

“Luke, you must be very careful of the monkeys,” Mrs. Hoa said.

“Absolutely,” I replied non-committedly. Was I being made fun of?

“They like your skin the best.”

Of course they do. I was reading The Bourne Identity at the time, not a particularly good book but a page-turner with enough of a rollicking plot to keep one interested. I also had a water bottle. I was warned specifically by Mrs. Hoa and my companions that the monkeys would try to steal these belongings. I found it all quite endearing.

In time the dusty, flat landscape became pockmarked by patches of mangroves as our car rocked and clanged its way towards the coast. We eventually stopped on the side of the road in order to walk to the speedboat ramp. The dirt road was flanked on both sides by mangroves stretching into the nether under a searing, buildingless blue sky. I put my book and water bottle in a plastic bag as recommended by my paranoid handlers, opened the car door and stepped out into the sun.

I was attacked immediately, before I could even shut the car door. It was really quite comical, though at the time confusing. I heard a kind of scuffle-noise, then felt a large weight. A decent-sized grey-brown monkey had leapt from places unknown and was hanging off my arm and the plastic bag containing my belongings. I lifted the bag to head height incredulously, looking the beast in the eyes; it hissed at me.

And then, through sheer gravity and monkey muscle, the creature ripped open the plastic bag.

My book and water bottle fell to the road with the master mammal, who landed gracefully and scooped them up before I could even process the theft. Then the canny burglar awkwardly ran across the road, half-carrying, half-dragging the water bottle and book, arms full of booty. It leaped into the mangroves and retreated a few metres into a thicket of saline bush – too far for me to go without getting wet, but I could still make the creature out visually. It was already flicking through The Bourne Identity in a very humanlike fashion.

Mrs. Hoa and the girls were apologetic and terse. The pure immediacy of the theft – as soon as I exited the car, from a monkey unknown, and its brevity – the whole operation took less than thirty seconds – was in retrospect hilarious. Mrs. Hoa handed me another bottle of water with businesslike efficiency and we left the car, and the monkey with a penchant for spy fiction, to wait for our return.

Of course, it was gone by the time we got back. Sunnier pastures one hopes.

Tomato Flood

This is the seventh in a series of posts running throughout 2015 about living, teaching, travelling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about a river near Da Nang.

The little outing in question took place in April 2008 around the central region of Vietnam (Annam in the colonial period), home to beautiful tropical mountains and bays, friendly people and delicious food. I was spending a few days partying with a group of English teachers and backpackers in Hoi An, which was great fun, but the lure of the countryside beckoned. Earlier I had ridden out past Da Nang and found a river to swim in, a quiet, shady spot with only a few people dipping their toes and lazily eating fruit.

So of course I contrived to disturb the serenity of this convenient jungle oasis. Canvassing the English teachers I managed to organise a caravan of four motorbikes and six intrepid volunteers. We duly headed off one balmy morning, stopping by the Marble Mountains along the way for some moderate hiking and amateur spelunking. After another hours’ ride, we arrived at the river and started on a picnic of fruit, beer and spicy fried egg rolls.

The river was quieter than the last time I visited, with only a very weak flow sluicing between large grey boulders. A couple of friends and I decided, after feeding and imbibing, to hike up the riverbed and see if we could get to a waterfall I had heard about. Apparently at the top of the river, high in the hills, was an old hill town in the region of the Ba Na (Bahnar) people. At some point the river had to widen out, we also reasoned, and that might be a better place to swim.

So three of us climbed up the wide riverbed, leaving the others to relax in the shade of our picnic site. It was a hot slog, but pleasant enough between jungle and boulder, with butterflies, dragonflies and lizards for company. Soon we could hear the roar of a waterfall, then we came to make out a kind of structure on a hillock over the river, with some uniformed security guards lounging about. We approached them and they took us through to a huge construction site, seemingly appearing out of nowhere from the jungle.

A long steel cable crossed a substantially wider section of the river up into the forested hills. The cable was being used for transporting goods up and down the valley. When I walked up to the cable landing I could see a waterfall down below, sadly inaccessible, a sheer drop of churning, brown and white water. It looked about eighty metres high. We had found the waterfall, but there would be no frolicking today.

The three of us were stared at as we dallied about the piles of concrete, rocks, wood, and piles of cables punctuated by earthmoving equipment. It was an odd situation: three white foreigners climbing up a river and into a construction site of frozen labour, perched precariously above a flowing stream. I rewarded the staring through physical clowning and limited Vietnamese, but soon it got to the point of either joining in to play cards or hiking back down to our friends. We said our goodbyes.

Climbing back down the river took no time at all. Once there we lounged around and ate watermelon, made some more sandwiches and finished our beer. We were all seated on a boulder when the sound of water running started getting louder. I can remember looking upstream and seeing the river’s tiny trickle appear to bulge, to rise, thinking it was strange. Those of us who noticed first must have looked quite bemused and confused until we realised what was happening. The water had risen thirty centimetres in as many seconds. The river was flooding.

Half-laughing, half-scared-hysterical, we picked up our fruits and vegetables and cutlery and other tidbits and waded towards the riverbank, where our motorcycles were waiting. We all made it before the water got too high but my best friend at the time, Amy, decided to go back to save a lone tomato. It sounds pretty silly now and it was then too. She managed to get back to the boulder, grab the tomato – and then she froze. The water was going ferociously fast at this point.

Luckily Pat, another Australian teacher working in Hung Yen, was close to the bank and waded out to help her. He pulled Amy and the lucky tomato to the shore and we all watched, wet, as the water rose and rose. The deluge came to move extremely quickly, with no sense of letting up, so we shrugged, got back on our motorcycles and rode back to town, where the rivers are black and polluted but don’t try to kill you. Unless you’re lucky enough to fall in.

Over two years later I found myself once again in central Vietnam and returned to the same patch of river with Amy and three other friends. This time a group of men were waiting at the bank and took our motorbikes to a secluded area, promising to watch them for fifty cents; a common informal parking security situation in Vietnam. There were a couple of families and young couples swimming – all Vietnamese, munching (and sharing!) lychees and leaping from boulders into the water, which was high this time.

Throwing caution to the wind we did as the locals and waded in for a proper swim. Thankfully there were no flash floods. We made some new friends, got sunburnt, and headed back to the bikes. I was curious about the construction site, so rode up the road to where I remembered it should be. Standing over the waterfall was now a large cable car operation, taking passengers over the river and high up into Ba Na. It was insanely busy – we considered going up, but the queue was simply not moving.

I’d like to go back to that little patch of Earth again some time. I’ve often thought about that river, that waterfall, that patch of ground. I don’t know any of the region’s names, I’ve forgotten the name of the river etc. – but I reckon I would remember the route out there from Danang.

In the next installment I will cover some of the other trips I took while teaching in Saigon, including to Da Lat and Can Gio.