Again I wandered out of my hotel into the sleepiness of Ha Long bay. All market stalls were closed and the fog still drowned out the scenery. Again the sky met the sea in a blanket of silver with just the faintest edges of the mountains in view, watercolour in a haze of shades. I walked along the beach front, wandering aimlessly and trying to calm the increasing feeling that I was being watched. Constantly.
I am in a tourist destination where hundreds of ‘farangs’ get dropped of weekly, if not daily to explore this gem, a world heritage Site and popular travel destination. So if this is the case can you please stop staring at me as if I have grown multiple heads in the space of seconds. I feel like I have become something of a freak show as I walk alone along the hidden streets where groups of local people stop and gawk, before turning to their friends and having a good old chin wag about my presence. It doesn’t help that I have come in the quiet season (aka the freaking freezing season).
I am not immune to the staring. I spent a year in Huairou – Beijing, teaching English, which was a very quiet place to be situated. With only three ‘farangs’ – myself and two guys – we were something of a novelty. There, it was a whole different ball game of staring. Shopping trips became a constant game of hide and seek where, basket in hand, I would try to lose the groups of local people amongst the aisles as they followed, curious as to what I was going to put into my basket. My shopping was scrutinised and commented on, especially when I would stock up on multiple chocolate bars in some sort of desperate attempt to cure my home-sickness. Tube rides became a photo opportunity for locals, who would sneakily hold up their camera phones to take various snap shots of my hung-over state.
Now I find myself battling those familiar feelings which I had long forgotten about. Can I just accept that they may be curious? Can I just let it slide and feel overjoyed that I don’t blend in? Can I just saunter down the streets with the careless freedom that comes with wandering in new and unfamiliar territory? No. At the moment I feel like doing this, if one more person stares at me.
Hoodie up and scarf wrapped round my face, I was still recognised as a foreigner. What is it exactly? Do I have a particular ‘farang’ swagger that I’m unaware of? Guys on mopeds frantically turned their heads in shock at my presence, before shouting only God knows what. I’m hoping it was all sweet words of ‘welcome my dear long-lost friend’ although I might be just a bit optimistic there. Whilst I was with my travel companion I could handle it and took it as innocent curiosity and no more than that. Now, alone and feeling vulnerable, I notice every stare and hear every heckle, which makes me want to kick off and throw random, clumsy Kung Fu moves on the unsuspecting audience.
Forcing myself to eat, I found a small restaurant to eat my beloved noodles. I sat at the back and felt all eyes on me as I battled my way through the use of chopsticks and slippery noodles, which of course made me even more self-conscious and therefore had me dribbling, dropping and slobbering over my bowl of deliciousness, much to the amusement of the multiple pairs of eyes as they watched my discomfort.
I have now retreated to my hotel room, feeling comfort in my sanctuary and away from preying eyes. Tomorrow, I shall again brave the curious stares and random comments thrown my way, that I do not understand. I will keep smiling through gritted teeth and try to take it all in innocent jest and when I eat my noodles I will dribble with abandon, relishing every splatter that covers my face. As I say, Vietnamese food is there to be thoroughly enjoyed, audience or not.