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ALL HAIL THE TRAFFIC GODS By Roy Wang
I was already 5 minutes awake when the alarm clock rang, and the piercing ascending tone reminded me of the fact that I was awake. Anyway, I just came back from Vietnam. It was awesome. Pham Ngu Lao(The backpackers area we stayed at) itself was a short story: Everybody wants your money, the hawkers, the Cyclos, the Rayban peddlers. Continuously and constantly, somebody wants your cash, and of course, you don't want to offend anybody by telling them to F*** off, so you're nice, and talk to everybody, raise their hopes and tell them no.
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It was the end of a scurried length of months I don't even remember, of people I want to forget and works I rush to finish. In retrospective of the rainy days of late, I think it is a form of illness one recovers from to look back at oneself and wonder what I've done all in all. I sit on the bus, sheltered from the outside world. I see the stretch of trees torn down, all that remains is a slippery shard of mud tracks, an indian worker standing forlorn in the rain dropped showers, his bright yellow safety helmet taking a surprise backseat amongst all that stands beside him and the rows of landed property in the far distance. I imagine upon the hoards of sheep being chased down the rain glistened streets. If only they were green, filled with lush carpet grass. And I meant the sheep.
As I ordered a bowl of beef pho, Christmas songs kept purring into my head like an incessant throb as i sat in this quaint restaurant decked by red checkered tablecloth and replica paintings of Renaissance works. â€œLast Christmas/I gave you my heart/But the very next day/You gave it away. This year/to save me from tears/I'll give it to someone specialâ€?. The waitress, daughter of the boss resembled Rachel, returned my smile. Her singing and chirpy dance of that song swept my mind off food for a while. One of the most enjoyable things were sitting at the bar bistro near midnight watching the young couple playing Da Cauc (I had no idea how the game worked, but it had seemed to be a popular past time amongst the Vietnamese in the park, and it strangely resembled this Singaporean game of Chap teh), the shuttle cock fluttering to and fro above the oncoming onslaught of never ending motorbikes and flowing traffic(even at this time of the night!), separating us from the warm love they shared in the midnight air.
10000 Âśpeople I tell you,
crowding the roads on motorbikes and foot, waving their country flags and donning their national colors, one of the things i witnessed on the bus ride. Yellow for victory, Red for passion, and Black, well, for sleep.
The bus ride was such a new experience for me, the ultimately rocky double decked beds fueled by the hugely uneven roads en-route to Nha Trang. Frankly right now, I hope we'd reach our first rest stop pretty damn soon, for I desperately need to, answer nature's call. The sparse lights from the thin suburbs dotted my memories from the rain stained windows, as after a while, i stopped taking interest in the throngs of traffic and billboards littered every now and then, like a trail of black worker ants leading from Ho Chi Minh to Nha Trang, with the occasional red opposition. She's so cute, the way her head peeks out from the gap between the railing and headrest when she sleeps. Her back view is awesome, toned dark thin back pulled tight together by the pink spaghetti she has on (now covered by the frumpy jacket she pulled on). I think I'm crazily attracted to a fellow traveller, whose name I do not know of, but am intrigued by her geeky black spectacles belittling her sporty exterior. Is she Japanese, Chinese, or American born Chinese I imagine, and try to fathom as I pick up traces from here and there through her random and periodic conversations with her now asleep boyfriend. I do not feel sleepy as I stare at the mound created by her blanket as she hid underneath it. It has been months since I've taken so much time and effort to observe
someone in such detail and close proximity. I feel like a neon lighted signboard flickering alight again, for a brief moment, as I try to shut the world out of my mind and feel the landscape around me through my sleep. Nha Trang was gorgeous. The beach, the architecture, the people. They were genuinely friendlier you know. The morning felt unreal as the beach waves crashed upon my back and the sun tingled on my skin when I slept on the sand. I relate to you, and I project myself onto you, that was the painting of the ideal landscape. In Murakami's words, if someone asked me the epitome of blue, I would have looked at the scene and pointed out, this, is that very blue you have been looking for.
How could I not mention about the Gods of Traffic. I could have stood 20 minutes at the sidewalks and couldn't have crossed. Someway or another, the traffic represented the spirit of Vietnam. It was the only time I felt real. The hoard of motorbikes sparking and avoiding each others paths with almost telepathic understanding, as I walked forward, cutting across them all in a slow steady pace, my heart freezing up at every horn and whiff of the front tires. It wasn't fear I felt. It was life. Life that could be swept away in a split second. You could either place your trust in the people, or you could trust the Gods of Traffic. Being a true blue Singaporean, I trusted both. Our landlady wasn't so lucky though, she wasn't at her usual spot in the kitchen when I looked for her to barter currencies one morning. Her father told me in whatever English he could muster that she met with a traffic accident. Hanh was back the next day though, albeit multiple scratches on her face. Somehow, all I remember of her was that scene, and when she told us she looked more like a soldier than Jarryl did. The rest of the things she said, were like empty soap bubbles to me. The very last moments of Vietnam was spent eating a 6USD bowl of beef pho at the airport. Heavily overpriced, but very very delicious.
Yours sincerely, Roy
It was a heartbreak of sorts that finally led me to Saigon again, the Saigon of my dreams. As I write this, I can still recall distinctly the smell of Saigonese air, polluted, foul, as the air of metropolitan cities invariably smelled like. Yet, there is the acute smell of freedom, adventure, promise: It was the Land of the Free, as far as I was concerned.
The horror â€Ś
The madness overtook us as soon as we set our feet on Vietnamese soil. 15 USD per person for the cab to take us to our guesthouse in Pham Ngu Lao, District 1, the backpackers’ area. We haggled, he budged a little and that was it, we paid up like meek lambs. And that was the start of the paranoia, the fear that travelers often fall into, the fear that we were constantly being ripped off. A strange fear no doubt, but not an unfamiliar one. It was a fear of the unknown, the fear of leaving one’s comfort zone for a foreign land, manifested in a way that the mind could comprehend. But of course it was a fair trade, the sheer excitement of being in someplace other than home, the gorgeous feeling that the world was your oyster and for the taking. 45 minutes and 25 USD later, we found ourselves right outside our guesthouse, in this charming little alley in Pham Ngu Lao, safely tucked away from the rest of the world, and where we could observe everyday Vietnamese life. Outside this cocoon, it was a different story. Pham Ngu Lao is blatantly, unabashedly touristy, beautiful, enthralling, like how you would think of a circus, or a drag queen in an over-the-top get-up. It is populated with shops selling all kinds of trinkets and replica paintings, backpacker bars, tailors, travel agencies, internet cafes, cafes offering western and Italian fare. Every now and then, peddlers selling sunglasses, lighters, photocopied bestseller paperbacks would attempt to court and cajole you into inspecting their wares, in their Vietnameseinflected English, “Souvenir?” Cyclo riders and motorbike taxis anchor themselves on both sides of the main road, cooing and cawing for attention, clambering for business. Ah and the roadside hawkers, with their little push-cart cafes and little plastic tables and little plastic chairs, whipping up cups and cups of thick, lush Vietnamese ca phe (coffee), or piping hot bowls of pho, a staple dish of rice noodles and beef in soup.
And this was how we whiled away And our thistime was how we whiled away in our time in Saigon, Saigon, wandering the streets with nothing but our cameras and a small map, like lost sheep, and content to be lost sheep, soaking in the sights and sounds and indeed, the soul of this big city, observing people go about their daily lives, like a voyeur of sorts, and feeling thrilled and exhilarated exactly like how a voyeur would feel. Hours and countless cigarettes were spent at roadside cafes, introspecting and peoplewatching. And I would look into their faces, see the lines and the years and the passage of time and it would be a bittersweet, inexplicable feeling that took me to the highest highs and the lowest lows, a full spectrum of emotions with very subtle nuances that I canâ€™t quite place. It felt like a beautiful piece of music. I would think of my own lonely heart and their lonely hearts (for in my thoughts, they are lonely) and all the lonely hearts in the world and I would realize that Iâ€™m not alone in being alone. And this is how I got my courage.
It was with heightened anticipation that we embarked on our nine-hour journey to Nha Trang, a seaside town and a familiar name from all the Vietnam War movies that I’m such a fan of. We went by bus, in the dead of night, comfortably ensconced in our own sleeper compartments. I had the foresight to purchase a (photocopied) copy of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road just before boarding and I can’t say enough of how wonderful the feeling is to curl up on your bed of sorts and read a book about traveling on the road while actually traveling on the road. I imagined myself as one of Kerouac’s dissatisfied anti-hero protagonists, hitting the road with nothing in my pockets and nothing to my name. When the lights finally went off, I just lay there in the darkness and listened to the soft breathing of the other passengers as they lulled off into a gentle sleep, of which I couldn’t partake of yet, with all that excitement coursing through my veins. Strangers sleeping near you, oddly comforting. I pretended to be an astronaut, getting ready to be launched into space, in my small capsule of a bed. I stared at the digital green LCD clock right at the front of the bus. Any minute now and I would be catapulted into space, the final frontier. Minutes ticked, the phosphoric green digits changed unobtrusively. I fell into a light sleep. The bus came to a stop at a petrol station. Lights came on, the air-conditioner died together with the engine. Piss break. I stumbled out, bleary-eyed and made my way mechanically to the toilet, more of my brain functioning on autopilot, rather than an actual need. I stretched my sore back, and took in big lungfuls of fresh air. Spotting a roadside cafe where the driver was wolfing down a bowl of noodles ravenously, I made a cautious approach. I ordered a hot ca phe from a kindly lady and held it in my hands, feeling its reassuring warmth against the cold, cold night. I lit a cigarette, drew deeply, exhaled. My weary soul delighted at this outpost, this stronghold that kept the darkness at bay, this sole bright gem, before and after which were miles and miles of the great blackness. I never forgot this feeling, though we have had many more piss stops along the way.
Nha Trang. The hunger hammered away at us as we disembarked. We were lost yet again in a new town, no rooms, no baths to wash away the dust from the road. But food was the one thing on our minds and lo and behold, imagine our joy as we chanced upon the Dam market and sat down for a bowl of noodle soup and fishcakes of sorts. A simple meal, no doubt, but at that time, it felt like it was the best meal we would ever have in Vietnam. Thus refueled, we decided to hit the beach, probably the biggest attraction in Nha Trang. Our spirits soared as we smelled the salty air, and saw the blue waters against a backdrop of hills, shrouded in the morning fog. Oh how we gawked, we people of the City Without a Decent Beach. With wild abandon, we ran for the waters, no extra shorts, no extra underwear, no matter. The waves lapped at us and threw us off our feet, we laughed and laughed over the echoes of the sea, as if we didn't have a care in the world, which looking back, we didn't at that particular moment in time. We fell asleep on the beach, the sun kissing us all over, encompassing us in its all-encompassing warmth.
We cycled for the rest of the afternoon, renting our bicycles from one of the many shops around. It was idyllic, a perfect day unfolding in the perfectest way possible. A day by the beach, cycling, its amazing how these simple activities can bring about such a profound sense of happiness. I am in awe of life, I want to live, I want to be happy, I believe I can be happy. I am a manic-depressive and I didn't care. Been so caught up with everything that I have been blinded, but I see now; I can leave everything behind if so I chose.
And so the day drew to a close, as did our time in Nha Trang. We took the night bus back to Saigon, a city I was beginning to call home. I shall end my account here. This is not meant to be a travel guide, neither is it supposed to be an exhaustive, chronological record of my short trip to Vietnam. Rather, I hope this piece manages to capture my thoughts and feelings while I was in Vietnam, to serve as a happy memory, a piss stop that keeps me safe from the darkness all around. And I shall continue to travel, for the wanderlust has hit. I hope to be able to backpack through Southeast Asia in the near future, to be one of Kerouac's heroes, the restlessness and the dissatisfaction with life my driving force. And then the world will be my oyster. P.S. The world out there is too big, too wonderful to remain heartbroken for long.
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