To tell you about Vietnam I have to go back to childhood, when my eyes sparkled first time I heard my grandfather utter the word Indochina, my grandfather who was a communist – and being a communist was all the rage back then. But this isn’t a story about my grandfather, or the shattered ideals I inherited from him – nor is this a story of me, being a bit older, fantasizing about making love on the floor of a wooden shack, surrounded by the clamor of the street caught in a monsoon rain – as I have read about it in that book of Duras – or imagining what it must have been like, during the years of that terrible war, in my very own version of Quiet American, visiting Cholon and dancing the night away with the likes of Phuoung.
To tell you that this is a story about Vietnam of today is not saying much. We are all of us, at the same time, shackled by the limitations of our experiences and liberated by the depths of our imagination. There is a line when one crosses into another, but during my escapades in Vietnam that line was always blurred for me.
There are things I have done there I have never thought I was capable of doing, and perhaps, looking from a distance, I’ve painted those personal histories more colorful than they really were. Still I have an urge to write them down, for better or worse. I stayed longer than most who came to visit, I left way before to say I’ve actually lived there. One year later I came back again. And I know I will keep returning, as long as there is strength in my body, and adventure in my spirit. Most people put values in their achievements that have materialized into something – you have worked hard, and you bought yourself that big house with a picket fence and a fast car and now you can eat steaks and make barbecue in your beautiful garden and you can take your lovely wife and your cute children on holidays at least three times a year, skiing and all. Surrounded and brought up by the utilitarian and the pragmatic, I’ve long ago decided I don’t care much for the quantification of life. I cherish moments, I try to capture them as my most prized possessions and I’ve finally learned how to enjoy letting them go.
To tell you about Vietnam is to tell you about the rain. I took a taxi once, during the biggest downpour I’ve ever encountered, from one city to another, just to see a woman. I could sit in a cafe for hours, watching the street enveloped by the rain, as if it was a living organism, with a heart pulsating like a dying star. When all the smells came fluctuating and in a savage scherzo bringing up memories, going all the way back to the lost civilizations of old. When even in the piss and shit and blood and vomit you can find poetry, when even the sight of a fat tourist in a cyclo doesn’t nauseate you anymore, and you’re in peace with the world, washed and cleansed again, like a sin in a bathtub, you are reveling in it, and yet you feel pure. And in between the music, I remember riding slowly on the back of a motorbike with my brother, discussing The Count of Monte Cristo in the swirling rush hours of Hanoi, looking for that perfect Ban Xeo, as if that was the only thing that mattered in the world. There are other things that come to mind; I’m chain-smoking again, and beer costs only 20 cents so of course I’m drinking too. I’m an elegant man, I don’t like Bukowski, but we do have that in common – I can only write when I drink. But there are few countries where you can sober up so easily, and where hangover is emphatically cured by a simple bowl of pho.
Some people stay here longer than they should, most leave way too soon. This time I was working, I led my first tour in Vietnam. I think I can say that now, after four and a half years of doing this, I’ve started to like my job. I’m not a glorified chaperone anymore, I’m an old-school cicerone, I’m playful and often disrespectful, I’m not afraid to fuck up. I take my groups through the roller coaster two week bonanza of seeing the world through my eyes, and most of them seem to like it for some reason. But can they really understand Vietnam, can they grasp the finer threads that make this intricate fabric so mesmerizing? Or is it all still a simple holiday, perfumed with a few diluted anecdotes and instagram-worthy photographs to make your friends more envious? Am I being too hard on them, or am I being too easy on myself? Whenever in doubt, I keep whispering that a successfully organized two week escape from 9 to 5 is more liberating than daydreaming about the distant smell of freedom none of us ever encounter. But whenever in doubt, I start doubting this as well.
Nothing can prepare you of riding Ha Giang loop for the first time. I lost my virginity pretty late in the the day (I was a romantic if you haven’t figured it out by now), and when I did, it happened with a perfect woman. I lost my father and my brother when I was just starting to come of age. Both of these experiences were powerful, each in its own way, yet none compare to the savage joy I felt conquering those mountain roads. If freedom could be fucked, I thought, it would be done with a decrepit Honda Wave riding through the curves that lead to Ma Pi Leng Pass. And perhaps this is what I want to write about. The Wild Wild East that is Vietnam, and you don’t have to go far looking for it. Horses are replaced with motorbikes, your day, from early morning to the darkest hours of the night, is a perfectly blank canvas. You paint it with your wit, your sense of adventure, a never holstered revolver that keeps shooting through your deepest crucifixions, which keeps you sane in a world that’s gone fanatic in lulling itself to sleep. And there is no remembrance of sleep in Ha Giang. There is only a memory of a burning dawn rolling on top of an otherworldly landscape that you will never ever forget.
I can never get tired of sitting by the Hoan Kiem lake at night, watching the world go by. If I had to describe Vietnam to you in one word, it would be the street. Everything is happening in the street. You can find all phases of life here, all hopes and delusions, if you look hard enough. I was poor once, I’m not poor anymore. Yet, somehow I feel I never want to be rich. Is that a strange thing to say in today’s day and age? I need to be close to the people. As much as I dislike democracy and the over content suburban mentality it brought along with it, I still feel inherently tied to the pulse of ordinary struggles. I ask questions to taxi drivers and I want to make them feel comfortable, although I’m always sitting in the back seat of the car. I make grandfather jokes with the old ladies in the food market, I don’t go to church on Sundays yet for some reason on that day I still try to dress respectable no matter how bad the Saturday evening was. I try my best to perform chitchat, although, to be really honest, I don’t much care for it. However, I don’t believe in that spiritual aristocracy anymore that kept me occupied growing up in a typical central European capital. As much as it is somewhat gratifying, it also smells of decay, of withered roses and Thomas Bernhard, and that’s not my thing anymore. I need to be close to the people.
I really hate travel bloggers. There, I’ve said it. How many likes will I get for this post I wonder. How many of my thousand something Facebook friends will read this through? How many will find this meaningful? How many will scorn my words? I use to give a shit. Will this affect my career, my website, my business, my idea of a perfect me? I have to be true to myself. If I am to write, I have to write free and unburdened. If I have to exist in this world, I have to be surrounded with people who feel life in the same tunes as I do. Fuck travel bloggers. I don’t want you to please me. I want you to teach me how to bleed so I can love again. I want you to make me fall head over heels in that destination you care about so much, and not because they’ve paid you to say it, but because it is so deeply intertwined in the very core of your being that when you breath you breath passion, and passion is so easily recognized.
And passion is everything.
I don’t know what I’ve wanted to tell you about my Vietnam anymore. That it’s a perfect purgatory? That it’s a place that tames your demons? Or is it a place that sets them free? Is it a cacophony of meaningless pursuits? Or is it an idea, centered and untamed, an idea of self thrown in the world without restraint? Is it a melody, gravitating above base preoccupations, levitating beyond the desire to have or to gain? Or is it serenity, in its truest form, a place so raw you can reinvent yourself all over again, as if just leaving the womb? Yes, maybe that’s it. A place where you can be whoever you desire. A place where your personal success in whatever form you see it is propelled by the impetus of your very own imagination. And maybe, just maybe, there are more places like that. Maybe all of them are. I don’t know. I’ve seen it in Vietnam.