published: April 2013
Mystic Fool: Travels in Vietnam
I had the fortuitous timing to arrive in Vietnam during the culmination of the celebration of Tet, the Vietnamese new year. For Vietnamese, Tet probably has the importance of all the Western holidays rolled into one. Families spend time remembering their ancestors and offering to them incredible amounts of food, liquor, cigarettes, and whatever else Grandpa used to really enjoy. The items are placed on the family altars that are ubiquitous in Vietnam, and after a mystical period when their essence passes on to the ancestors in the spirit realm, they can then consume them.
This timing was a boon to anyone fascinated by Vietnamese traditions, but I wished I’d come in low season when I found myself enmeshed in a sea of motorbikes crossing the city’s broad boulevards. Inching through a seemingly impassible maelstrom of motorists, like a school of fish with fire-hot exhaust pipes, was not the most welcoming introduction to Ho Chi Minh City. Needless to say, every person in southern Vietnam seemed to be in the city then.
I crashed at a place offering a $5/night room in Pham Ngu Lao. It was so cozy that I could touch the walls on either side of my bed at the same time.
In several days I tired of the hustle of Ho Chi Minh City and cast my eyes on the long coast leading to Hanoi, where I had a general plan of staying for a while. I blazed through the quaint coastal town of Mui Ne (right), spending a night in a youth hostel after a trek through town and some red snapper on the beach that I picked out of the tank myself.
My wanderings delivered me next to the former holiday refuge of the French colonials, Da Lat. The nearly alpine environment of that small settlement was what originally drew the Europeans to build vacation homes there, and it still has a feeling of being far removed from the jungles, tropical coasts, and chaotic cities of the rest of the country.
Da Lat is famous foremost for the strawberries, flowers, and other delectables that fill its vast sweeps of nurseries and sloping ridges. It is called “Le petit Paris,”and there is even a miniature Eiffel Tower there. Despite these attempts by the French to imprint upon it their own character, it has much of its own originality that attracted me.
One example is the Crazy House, a seemingly Alice in Wonderland-inspired array of rooms rising like a surreal dream out of the ground. Technically a guesthouse, it’s like a fairy tale on mescaline, a twisting and surprising trip of childhood fancy and playful anomaly.
Passing through the relatively uninteresting beach party of Nha Trang, I arrived in Hoi An (left), the entire old section of which is a UNESCO world heritage site. The architecture of the tiny winding streets has been magnificently preserved to appear as it did long ago, and is one of the most historical destinations in Southeast Asia.
After several days in Hue, the old imperial capital, I finally made it to Hanoi, a place that for years I had held as mythical, where it was my will to stay for a long time.
I arrived on an overcast morning after being up all night on the bus from Hue. Knowing nothing about the city’s geography other than that Hoan Kiem was the area I wanted to be in, I ended up walking for miles all over the city that first day, falling in love with it.
I was attracted to Hanoi like it was a living being, more so than any other place I had ever been. It was very seductive, in the facades on houses, the old men with painter’s hats bicycling down the street, and the grey cobblestone underneath. It felt very respectable, refined, yet enigmatic, enshrouded. There was a curious dichotomy to it. On the one hand there was the serenity of the lakes and parks, and on the other, the blitzkrieg whirlwind of people and motorbikes in the street. There was a palpable sense of reverence to history there. Under the shadow of glass and concrete high rises, on streets lit by neon, an ancient stillness refused to be edged away by the impulses of modernity.
I was swooned by its vibrancy. Out of such a turbulent past there seemed to be an immediacy, a poetic urgency to make a future capable of stability. I found the images I saw walking around to be intensely captivating and beautiful. Trees wildly draped themselves over rainy streets and fog hung in the air into midday. At Hoan Kiem lake, old people did tai chi, young lovers embraced surreptitiously, and others sat alone in the stillness that emanates from that mythic water.
I knew only the simple, everyday necessities of the language, but these coupled with a modicum of politeness rendered more toothy grins and warm handshakes than anywhere I had ever been. People are nice in their own way everywhere, but in Hanoi I found some of the most straightforward and hospitable people I have encountered anywhere.
Walking down the street in Hanoi was like a military exercise. With every step one has to guard against getting creamed by a motorbike, stepping on a family of chickens or an old woman’s foot, knocking over a cigarette vendor’s stock, falling into a hole in the ground, obstructing the path of a woman carrying baskets bulging with fruit, falling over a steaming cauldron of pho broth, or, dazed by these perpetual precautions, just slipping and falling the way one does in the course of a normal walk.
There was an unexpected fluidity to the chaos in the streets, and after a while I realized it wasn’t chaos, but a seamless order. When crossing the street, the best thing to do, I found, was to just walk right across as if it were empty. The barrage of motorists would zip effortlessly around like the water in a river around a stone. It’s a kind of order, a symbiotic disharmony that was remarkable to witness.
This is an extract from Andy Hill’s excellent travel novel ‘Mystic Fool’. It follows the adventures of a young man as he travels around South East Asia. It makes for an entertaining read that mixes humorous drink-fuelled debauchery with a spiritual journey as he learns about fascinating local cultures and himself.
You can find the book here on Amazon and it is available in paperback or on kindle.