July 1st: (Canada Day), Vietnam
It's been an emotionally turbulent couple of weeks - leaving Hanoi, my home for a record 3 weeks, saying long goodbyes to friends and riding alone once again.
The crunch came when the Psion's batteries ran themselves down wiping EVERYTHING from the internal memory, (a harsh lesson in making backups), leaving me with a head full of thoughts and feelings whose details are lost over time. I write this from Sapa, a hill station sanctuary in the northern mountains, while Trystan rests in Hanoi. He's finishing his acupuncture course at the School of Traditional Medicine. His fingers, frozen by the continual vibrations of the bumpy terrain, are being subjected to the needle rather than the knife; we wait cautiously to find out the results in a few weeks, and are meeting up in Kunming, China.
Thoughts which over the last week were so strong in my mind are already softening, everything I recorded whilst fresh is gone. It's very frustrating having put so much time and effort into keeping the diary going, to lose so much in one fell swoop... All the notes I made along the way in Vietnam, all the little details - like the newsreader with the Strictly Ballroom outfit and buffant hairstyle - that make this country so individual, are pretty much lost.
But I do remember the feeling of loneliness leaving Hanoi, wanting to lose myself in the periphery of roads that lead me further and further away, just so I had an excuse to turn back. I felt uneasy within, my mind was unsettled and I hated every minute of the ride. Why was I putting myself through this?
The souless monstrocity of the hotel I stayed in the night didn't help. A pine driveway led to a Soviet style blockhouse emblazoned with hammer and sickle emblems. A full row of keys indicated it was no full house. The receptionist greeted me with a steely stare, but seemed to sense my mood and conceded with a smile - 'you very handsome!' I was shown to my room by no less than four people, tucked away on the fourth floor up a concrete stairway and down a long characterless corridor. I felt very alone. I lay down on the bed, tired, and stared up at the spinning fan. It had been a horrible day and I was glad it was over.
Perhaps this was one of the low points of the ride and as these feelings overwhelmed me I tried to deal with them in a Zen kind of way - be aware of these thoughts, accept them for the now, but wonder how they might have changed by the morning. A friendly little restaurant cheered me up a little and a kilo of 'lai chi' reminded me of Hanoi and the friends I'd left behind. From the hotel I found out that I could phone Rosal and have a chat - when I put the phone down, the manageress commented, 'Now you happy!'
This was a sad and lonely time, not one I want to dwell on, but one I feel is important to record nonetheless. Lucy, Rosal's flatmate, had said that 10kms out of Hanoi, I'd find my focus again... I know it will come, but perhaps it will take a little longer than that.
The next few days passed and the kilometres acumulated along a beautiful but hard road, punctuated by a string of empty hotels. One had Indian MTV - primarily boy bands and heavily Bond influenced video clips. My mind was soon vegetabalised by a steady stream of meaningless sight bytes. The doors were covered in imitation leather, like a gentleman's club reading room, and it even had A/C and a phone! Whilst the next 'hotel' I found had a dark and dingy pit of a loo, a straw mat as a mattress and a dripping tap in lieu of a sink, mirror and shower. Vietnam can be so very different at times...
I detoured to the beautiful market town of Bac Ha, set 20km beyond an old suspension bridge up a steep pass into a range, where I encountered the first Westerners in a few days. I kept to myself. Untainted as yet by too much tourism, (perhaps driven away by the loud 'Voice of Vietnam' that blasts out from street tannoys morning and night) the town still had a very 'real' market feel to it. Local tribespeople, in their colourful and well worn clothing, arrived from miles around to sell their produce, from squealing piglets to baskets of plums. It was a fascinating place, but to be honest, my mind wasn't really into it - after strolling around and tasting some unidentified food, I was ready to rest and watch the busy scene below from the hotel veranda. I suppose I just wanted to get to Sapa and take my mind away from this solitude....
Though I write this after the event (back to pen and paper as I try to piece together some old thoughts) and things are back on course, it reminds me how much of an emotional challenge this ride can be, and it is these emotions that can be far harder to deal with at times than anything physical. But the diary goes on (if only to keep my mum happy, my most avid reader!) and the ride continues. Like losing all your rolls of film, it's a shock at first but you deal with it. In a way, perhaps it's a good lesson - after all, words are only words, not experiences in themselves...
I guess these disasters and low times are all part of something much bigger - blips in the year, a balance to so many good times.
My time in Vietnam has been incredible, memorable, emotionally turbulent and at times awful - all of which sums up this intriguing country, quite unlike the rest of SE Asia. It's certainly been 6 weeks that I'll always remember. Am I ready to leave?! The border to China is only 40km away.
I'll soon find out...