Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

23 Nov 2013

Desert Island Discs … with an iPod

Posted by Will

At 6am last Monday morning I set off with Van the Man to Quan Lan island. The bumpy five hour bus ride on backroads, including a breakdown halfway, reminded me why it’s better to travel by bike, and when finally arrived it turned out we had landed in the wrong place. A fast and furious fifteen minute motorbike ride later, the port came into view and with half an hour to spare before the boat’s departure we set about gathering supplies.

p1060949-800I had expected a medium-sized car ferry so was surprised when Van pointed to a tiny white speedboat which floated amidst rowing boats, driftwood and splayed fishing nets. Of course since this was Vietnam, the port rang with noise, mainly because everyone shouted by way of communication. As disorganised and disorientating as the port seemed, its surroundings, hundreds of precipitous rocky islands rising vertically out of the water, couldn’t have been more peaceful. We boarded our boat with a kilogram of dried ‘pho’ noodles, four tins of canned meat, twenty sachets of instant coffee, a packet of Oreo cookies, a bag of salt and a handful of rice crackers.

Although the sun didn’t shine on the hour-long over-water skim my eyes lit up with the innumerable islands. A few other boats paddled around for fish, still others set up temporary camps in sheltered bays. My excitement mounted. Off the bow I looked out over the beginning of the Pacific and breathed in my first view of the ocean since leaving the coast of Holland, now almost two years ago.

We disembarked on a narrow, damaged pier and then took a tuk-tuk on a primitive, sandy road along the coast. Seven kilometres later we arrived at our destination, a sandy beach resort, apparently busy in the summer but now completely deserted. The taps still ran with water, there were toilets, showers, chairs and benches and best of all a kilometre long white expanse lined with palm trees. Eager to get settled, we skidded through the sand a little way up the beach, found a flat spot amongst the trees and started to build our camp. Van, a true gentleman, refrained from commenting on the dilapidated state of the tent and politely ignored the distinct rainforest odour emanating from within.

p1060945-800The light dimmed as we set to work collecting washed up sticks and logs for a fire, not a difficult job when tropical storm Haiyuan had passed through only 10 days before. The storm had certainly taken its toll on the trees, many of which were snapped or bent double. With an enormous pile of firewood ready to go, two thick squares of washed-up polystyrene for chairs, my iPod, Van’s speakers, a mountain of ‘pho’ noodles, the bag of salt, two pairs of chopsticks and not another soul in sight, we set the beach glowing with a single flick of my lighter.

We chatted through both the evenings we spent there, but also spent time in silence, watching the outline of the waves or the moon whenever it shone through the clouds. I thought about my new friend Quynh, a recently retired, kind-faced man, who found this blog, commented, and subsequently took me out twice to sample dishes in his favourite restaurants. He told me fascinating stories about the look of Vietnam shortly after the ‘American War’ (as it is often called here). He returned to Hanoi in 1978 where he recalls seeing hardly a car or motorbike, only crowds of identically dressed people, in black trousers, white shirts and conical hats, making their quietly to work. Back then the five major foodstuffs, including rice and meat, were rationed and could only be bought with stamps. The premier department store Trang Tien, the Harrods of Hanoi, contained over a hundred outlets but all sold exactly the same products. Quynh said whenever anything new came out everyone with money would stampede in to buy it, no matter what the intrinsic value of the product.

He told me about the lead-up to the American War itself, a story I’d always wanted to hear from a Vietnamese but been too anxious to raise in conversation. He explained the following:

p1060963-800When the French colonial rulers left in 1954, the Geneva accords split Vietnam into North and South along the infamous 17th parallel. Under the agreement, a vote was due to take place within two years over whether the country should reunite or remain divided. The North, with leader and national icon Ho Chi Minh at the head, governed with communist principles and the support of Mao Zedong’s China while the South’s elite, made up largely of figures made prominent and wealthy in the former French administrations, ruled with opposite ideals and were backed by the US. The US foreign policy of ‘communism containment’ forced them to intervene to prevent the reunification vote ever taking place since overwhelming evidence suggested the country would come together under the communist banner of Ho Chi Minh. This intervention led many Vietnamese to conclude that one colonial power had been replaced by another. Communism became identified with the movement for an independent Vietnam and freedom from meddling, foreign powers. While communism was by no means universally supported, independence was. Many southern Vietnamese crossed the 17th parallel to join forces with the North while others remained in the South to form underground resistance groups. Over time, as everyone knows, the conflict escalated leading to mass deployment of US troops. Quyne said that while the American War is lamented for the terrible loss of life and other reasons, it is only the most recent episode in Vietnam’s long bloody history of war.

Laying by the fire I also thought of all the opportunities back in Hanoi. I am convinced after only a month that there are hugely profitable ventures to be made in business. There are people worth getting to know closely and there is a high chance of an enviable quality of life. I considered what I might stop cycling for, what my criteria would be and whether I would conceivably stop for anything. I haven’t found answers to those questions, but the very fact I began thinking that way means something.
p1060912-800Van plugged in some soppy Vietnamese songs and we cooked up the ‘pho’. Although we couldn’t conjure up half the taste managed by the street-side vendors, we did reasonably … salt made a huge improvement on my usual camp-stove meals. Then, with a healthy disregard for the conventional wisdom that swimming after eating is a bad idea, I stripped off and ran full-pelt into the sea, only to thrash frantically back to shore minutes later after remembering a warning about sharks and jellyfish. Nothing gets you out of the water quicker when swimming in total darkness.

Next morning we walked to a village in search of something tastier to eat. We hadn’t gone far before a tuk-tuk containing three very silly girls rolled up and beckoned us inside. They might have been nice company for the day, at least that’s what Van and I had expected when presented with three girls in a tuk-tuk, but what followed was two hours of irritating giggling, unabashed flirting, constant photo-taking and hyperactive, unnecessary excitement, all of which clashed horribly with the serenity of the surroundings. We would have run away earlier but the tuk-tuk conspired to break down in the middle of nowhere, leaving us to wait for a non-existent island mechanic to come to the rescue. When we finally made it back to the village, we bid them a quick farewell and ducked into a restaurant for fried rice.

We spent the rest of the day walking back to the tent and chatting. Van studied two university years in Britain and so speaks perfect English, but just as importantly, in fact especially important in a desert island companion, he shares my sense of humour. He’s open and relaxed, always with an interesting point of view and he listened to and expanded on those opportunities I had preoccupied myself with the night before. He spent a significant portion of the evening patiently teaching me Vietnamese words and phrases and enunciated over and over again the six tones used in speaking. If I ever try to learn Vietnamese, I know now that the road to fluency will be long and pot-holed.

p1060948-800It rained in the early hours of the next morning and drizzled as we packed up the tent. A tuk-tuk ripped us off on the way back to the pier which I stamped my feet about but Van explained to me, as so many locals around the world have done before him, that there wasn’t anything to be done. I can never understand local apathy towards such unscrupulous behaviour but at that time too bleary-eyed to argue, I satisfied myself with a filthy look in the driver’s general direction. That probably gave him even more satisfaction. Van and I boarded another minuscule vessel.

The boat sped through Ha Long Bay offering more spectacular views of the jagged limestone outcrops and pillars, and then rounded the final island to reveal civilization. I regretted not staying longer on Quan Lan, particularly while enduring the bus journey back, but once again sought consolation in the possibility of an imminent return. I considered how glad I was to have torn myself away from Hanoi to make the trip. That said, I couldn’t wait for the bustle to envelop me once more. A rock and a hard place, eh? A city brimming with life on one hand, a near-deserted paradise island on the other. Around here they’re only 150km apart.

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