Our featured blogger, Steven Rose, hits South East Asia and ponders on why it's so difficult to get some alone time
I started travelling on April 7th, and since that date I haven’t been alone; until now.
On my first morning in the hectic maze of Bangkok I awoke to the sound of people talking in my dorm room. Naturally, I peered out of my bed to listen, with an optimistic hope that I may get involved in the conversation. A friendly face from the bed vertically opposite peered at me through black rimmed glasses and asked me my name, where I was from and if I fancied grabbing breakfast – standard traveller questions. This was Gavin, a posh English lad who took me under his wing. He’d been travelling Asia – India, Nepal etc – for a while, so he passed on some words of wisdom and generally made me feel okay about it all as I think he could sense my nerves.
With Gavin I met others; James and John – two more English lads who I subsequently travelled with in Thailand and Laos. Dave the Canadian, who joined us on the jungle trek, a friendly lad called Lee, who knew a friend of mine from home; small world really. I met Matt at the same time.
With Matt I met Huw, who I travelled Indonesia with. I’ve met countless others over the past few months. Now it’s nearly 4 months and this is the first time I’ve spent more than 6 hours alone. I’ve been in Ho Chi Minh after an extended sojourn from ‘proper travelling’ in Singapore. And, quite frankly, its actually refreshing.
Sure, it’s lonely at times. Especially on days like today, when the lethargy kicks in and everything seems too much effort. I’ve sat in a French cafe for the entire morning reading and researching, but this afternoon I met a kind Vietnamese chap who took me to the park to play football and the traditional Vietnamese game of, well, I have no idea what it’s called.
Basically it’s like tennis, except you use your feet, not your hands, there’s no racquet, and actually no ball – it’s a shuttlecock type device. Actually, now that I think about it, it's nothing like tennis. The principle is the same – return the “ball”, into the opponents half. Fail, lose a point. Anyway, he took me down there and arranged to take me to some bars on Saturday night.
I’ve had other encounters with people, purely by being alone in the right place. I met an American chap in a bar last night – he’d travelled the world and is now working here in Ho Chi Minh City. He gave me tips and advice: word of warning, don’t get a motorbike here – if a pedestrian or moped driver is injured from a fall – the onus is on the driver of the four-wheeled vehicle to compensate the injured party for as long as necessary. This has led to the ingenious and money-saving trick of “finishing them off” and settling for the cheaper fine, payable to the Government. In other words, they reverse over the fallen, to ensure a gruesome, but frugal death.
So far in HCMC, I’ve visited the War Remnants museum and the Notre Damn Cathedral. The city is steeped in history – French colonialism, American intrusion in the Vietnamese War era, and all the pre-colonialism Vietnam history too. I tried to get to the sky bar today, only to find out it was closed. Nevertheless, a Canadian sound engineer was fitting a new sound system and asked if I wanted to “go up the back entrance.” I accepted his offer and walked up the fire escape to the roof. The views were incredible; people scurrying about down below, mopeds whizzing around roundabouts full speed and buses and lorries ploughing through anything and everything. Asians behind a wheel don’t have patience.
I’m still struggling with the idea of “to travel”. Sometimes I wake with a frightening panic wondering what I’ll do that day. The lack of structure terrifies and excites me in equal measures. If I have something planned, there’s never a dull or panic stricken moment, but if its a completely “free” day I wonder what I’ll do to occupy my mind. I think far too much.
My favourite encounter so far in Vietnam, perhaps Asia, was with a kind, considerate young lady called Nho. She sat with me and Frankie – a friend I made on the Cu Chi Tunnel tour – and told us about her life. She left her husband due to his affection for gambling, moving back in with her mother in a one-bed shack on the outskirts of town.
She sells photocopied books to make a living. I remember countless occasions at university when I would complain and moan at having to carry heavy law books around with me from my flat to my class – a grand total of 150 metres and 2kg. She carries 200 books, stacked 5 feet high with her all night. She sells the books for 100,000 VND each – about £3.80. She said she’s lucky if she sells 8 a night. She seemed happy – first impressions can be deceiving. I naively asked her if she’s ever visited England. She said she doesn’t have the money to leave the city.
It strikes me that these people seem happy on so little. The need for material gain doesn’t affect them. They worry where the next meal is coming from, how they are going to afford the (by English standards) negligible rent, and how they can keep their God happy. I bought five books from Nho and said i’d like to stay in contact with her. She cheerfully told me she doesn’t have email, or access to the Internet.
I miss western living, western standards of cleanliness and the absence of cockroaches, but I’m settling quite well. I think my next adventure will be teaching. I’m going to sign up with an agency and teach English, here in Vietnam. I’ll do that while I wait for one of my best friends from home. I like to think he’s been inspired by my adventures to come out and join me, but I think he’s probably grown tired of the monotony of work and life back home too.
Listening to people whine about a boys behaviour, whinge about their unforgiving boss or their broken pair of hair straighteners gets old after a while. "Settling” for 6 weeks will be good, but I’m sure at the end of it I’ll miss the daily panic attacks, the irksome chore of packing my entire life into a rucksack and the 7 hour bus journeys.
"Got stuck-in-a-rut; craved adventure. Quit my job, sold my car and had a few needles put in places on my body that I’d rather not talk about. Finally about to embark upon an adventure of a lifetime. 25 years old, from the ‘Shire of Derby."