Cattle in transit

I say my goodbyes to the hotel staff while practically running out of the door. Get me on that bus. Hauling my great blue suitcase onto the bus, I found myself a seat by the window and sighed in relief. Sorry Ha Long bay but obviously our timing to meet was just not that great. Winter time is certainly sleeping time and wandering around in the cold, foggy mist was beginning to have a negative effect on my brain cells, as my options for entertainment came down to sleeping or eating. I chose both in equal measures.

So, huddled in the corner of my window seat – the only passenger so far – we round the corner to pick up a herd of other travellers, who I noted were looking slightly dishevelled and furious. They could not wait to get on the bus. Strange, I thought. Why are they so desperate to get on? The Vietnamese bus driver was either having an off day or permanently has a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp. He fumed, beeped the horn and got off the bus, huffing and puffing. Communication break down ensues, with the passengers frantically trying to get on the bus and the driver taking his time to open the door – probably relishing in their frustration – until I pulled the leaver and let them on. Mass pushing and shoving over, all passengers were aboard and strangely all were sighing with relief. I could feel the irritation and frustration lingering in the air, and it turn out the toxic atmosphere was certainly justifiable, as I were to find out.

It turn out that some of these amazing 1-2 day cruises around Ha Long bay are not all what they seem. ‘What? False advertisement? Never!’ I hear you say, but the truth is in the pudding. Or the dishevelled, angry faces of those travellers who had been duped.

‘Did you do the cruise?’ Asks one English girl. I tell her no, to which she quickly goes into an angry account of their experience. ‘Good, it was shit! They lied to us and told us that it would be All Inclusive. We would get to go kayaking, fishing, that all the drinks were free. None of it was inclusive. None. Not even the drinks were free, even though that is what we paid for’. I could hear people throwing in the odd comments ‘And I paid for a single room…Like hell did I get it’ shouts a young, very cute Swedish guy. ‘Yeah, we were practically sleeping on deck’, cries another. ‘Oh and there was no hot water and no heating. The boat was falling apart and the food was awful’. The English girl finishes her – very justifiable – rant. Ah, so that’s what’s with the glum faces. She shows me the brochure of the ‘dream cruise’ and I can only look at her in amazement. Amazement that the brochure is so bloody beautiful and seemingly legit. Every page showed delicious food, beautiful decking and gorgeous interior, red bows on the chairs like something out of a wedding reception. I too would have been pulled in by the romantic, classy ‘sell’ of it all. No wonder they practically fell onto the bus, dying to get back to the game of ‘crossing the road’ in Hanoi.

A silence falls upon the bus as we make the journey back. I can see through the front window where the driver is sat and watch as two lanes miraculously turns into six. How efficient and time saving, I think angrily as I hold onto both the seat and my breath, watching as cars, lorries, buses and mopeds weave in and out of the lanes, coming within inches of each other. Three hours into the journey we are carted off one bus and onto another as the one we were on now has to go to a wedding (?). The next bus we sat like cattle, practically on each others laps with the lack of room and the whole ‘lets try and squeeze a few more passengers on, even though there is no room whatsoever’ attitude of the bus company.

Finally I make it back to the hotel to haul myself up five flights of stairs and greet my travel buddy with relief. A quick dump of the luggage and we are out, back onto the chaotic bustling streets of the old quarter. I actually feel content to be back, feeling the energy of the people vibrating through my soul. Noodles steaming in front of me and a beer in one hand we cheers to the craziness of it all.

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All eyes on me

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.Eyes on me

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).

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Do I have something in my teeth?

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.

Did you get my good side?

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.

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Just look at me once more……

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.

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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.

Welcome to Lonerville….Population? You.

I have and always will be something of a loner. Maybe its having brothers and sisters who are much older than me, so as a child they were pretty much making their way into the world, getting married and settling down, while I was playing ‘teacher’ with various stuffed animals. My parents had me late in life, my mother being 45 when she went into the doctors complaining of weight gain and feeling under the weather only to be told that she was indeed expecting. Of course I was an accident (a lovely surprise, as my mother will say). The doctors advised her to abort as having a child at her age – in those days, was just risky and opened up many possible health risks. My mother, already having 5 other kids under her wings decided against the doctors orders and thus added another sprog to her brood.

Growing up, I was a very quiet child. I could play alone for hours and hours without needing company from adults nor children. I would collect the figurines from kinder eggs to create armies which would entertain me for days. Stuffed animals would be marked on the ‘teachers’ register, with grades given to the best ‘students’. Art classes were held where I would hold the toys hand/paw and guide the crayon across the paper to create various images, and of course there was a competition for the best drawing. I look back and wonder how on earth I was able to entertain myself for so long, with these ‘make believe’ games. If I knew the answer perhaps it would certainly help me right now.

I decided to escape Hanoi and travel to Ha Long bay. I have gone from holding my breath and being constantly alert to the various sights, sounds, people and traffic to just sheer quietness. Ha Long bay is apparently sleeping. The sky is completely grey and with the thick fog the sea blends into the sky. It has gone passed the ‘romantic, dreamy mist’ state in which you can immerse yourself in the beauty to just not being able to see anything, never mind picturesque, rugged mountains. I already feel pity for the hoards of tourists that are getting off the bus only to be shuffled onto the cruise for a night of sightseeing where you will be hard pushed to see anything.

So now I find myself alone. My travel companion is waiting in Hanoi for my return where the offer of employment as teachers awaits us. I sat at a café where a herd of Chinese tourists chatted, comparing purchases of coffee and nuts. One by one they took the chairs around my table. All but the one I was sitting on. I felt my vulnerability levels peak, sticking out like a sore thumb with my blonde hair everywhere. I tried to immerse myself in a book but felt the eyes of the locals on me. I sneaked glances as a local man watched my every move, from drinking my coffee, opening and closing my book, paying the waiter and gathering my change. I quickly scuttled off to walk off the insecurity that had begun to brew. Throwing my hood up to ‘disappear’ I walked and found a secluded spot overlooking the sea. Looking at my watch I noticed that I had been ‘out and about’ for just over an hour and suddenly I felt the dread that comes with ‘what the hell am I going to do for 3 weeks here?!!’

A person who is bored is bored with themselves. I read that somewhere many years ago and at the time I could not have agreed more. I agree with it now and am trying to ‘pull myself together’. I walked the stretch of the bay, continually trying to calm the feelings of uncertainty that comes with the unknown. Then I remembered that I could entertain myself for hours on end when I was a child, not needing a single soul to entertain and reassure me. So really I should embrace the solitude, the misty landscape, the sleepy beachfront with the wide roads that are not cluttered with mopeds beeping their horns frantically and missing running over my toes by inches. As I looked out to sea in all its murky grey glory, I asked myself ‘Here? Or at your corner desk staring at the computer screen?’ Here….Definitely here.

Calm in the chaos

Chaos in Hanoi

One of my favourite sayings is ‘wherever you go, there you are’. It was my internal reminder when I decided that life was just too tough, the job wasn’t what I wanted, that city just wasn’t for me. Whenever I sat at my desk, staring into the computer screen, eyes and mind slowly rotting from dissatisfaction, I would tell myself under muttered breath that ‘wherever you go, there you are’, so basically don’t even think about running away from your problems when all you are doing is running away from yourself.

I did that a lot. Throughout my early twenties to fairly recently, its what I did best. The grass was always greener and I was constantly searching for ‘something’. In fact my Dad said to me before I packed up for another adventure into the unknown ‘I don’t know what it is you are searching for, but I do hope you find it’. I am now in Hanoi, which fills me with immense uncertainty. The air is filled with adrenaline and chaos. If you have been to Hanoi then I am sure you understand the terror that comes from crossing the road. I was brought up as a kid to look left and right before crossing, always keeping your eye out for any cars that come into view and of course always cross when the green man is showing. Now I find myself looking left and right and just walking – looking straight ahead – at snail pace, hoping and praying that I get to the other side in one piece. Don’t run – was the advice I was given. Slow and steady wins the race (or in this case, keeps you alive). The constant stares and comments that are thrown at you by locals have my irritation levels soaring. The constant street sellers who shout for their donuts, books, fruit, and various other random items that need to be bought only adds to overwhelm me. My travel companion is slowly deflating in front of me. He is so cultured shocked and overwhelmed that the two of us together is like a ticking time bomb of irritation, just waiting to happen. Today I watched a guy on a moped carrying a plasma TV on the back with one hand on the handle bar and another holding the TV. There was another with a family of 4 on one bike with the man texting as they swerved through various bikes, cars and pedestrians.

Although I feel I have been slapped in the face with culture shock, as I walked around in a state of fury, exasperation and mental exhaustion from constantly being alert, I said to myself ‘wherever you go, there you are’ and suddenly I though of that saying in a whole different meaning. I am here so therefore its ok as I have myself. This crazy environment is neither good nor bad. It is neutral. I am making it into an overwhelming experience. It is all my own doing. Suddenly, with that in mind I felt a certain peace come over me amongst the beeping horns and swerving wheels. I am here and I have myself. Wherever you go, there you are and suddenly its not about deciding to run away from yourself. Its not about what city, job or situation you’re in. Its about knowing that you have yourself and that its up to you how you ‘paint’ your surrounding. It whether you take all the negatives and let them eat at your insides or you see things for what they are in that moment.

Of course I am still trying. I have come back to my hotel room exhausted while my travel companion is practically having a break down in the other room. It takes time to adjust but if you just observe your surroundings and try not to label the experiences with good/bad or get attached then everything becomes a little easier, a little less intimidating and you can finally say ‘wherever I go, there I am…thank heavens for that’.