Talk to anyone who is living and working in China and there’s a good chance they’ll speak so highly of it your ears will hurt. But there are some pretty significant sacrifices people have to make in order to come out here. Around Christmas and New Year, a time for friends, family and general merriment back home, China can be a little lonely. The Chinese people, school system and government are actually very understanding of this predicament. At New Year, all students and teachers, Chinese or foreign, are given a couple of days off. At Christmas, non-Chinese teachers are given one or two days to celebrate the holidays. This doesn’t exactly give us the time to be with our families, but it’s some consolation.
Thankfully, this is more than made up for around a month later. In China, Christmas is treated as a thanksgiving to the gods of commerce (what holiday isn’t right?) – to the people, the history and meaning of it has very little importance. Lunar New Year, on the other hand, is the most signifiant time of year. Students and teachers alike are treated to an entire month away from the offices and playgrounds. Families usually abandon their big, city homes and travel back to where they come from to be with relatives. The subsequent days and weeks from the turn of the new year see shops and restaurants dropping their shutters whilst families relax. Imagine Christmas Day being stretched over three or so weeks – Wuhan becomes a virtual ghost town!
So, instead of sticking around, I took this time to go somewhere a bit different – Vietnam. Not exactly the road less travelled, but a beautiful, easy to navigate place and, crucially, somewhere not plagued by cold and smog in the winter months. Instead of writing a typical travelogue (you can just buy Lonely Planet instead), I thought I’d try and document my time there in relation to the music I listened to. The easiest (and cheapest) way to get around Vietnam is by bus, some more comfortable than others. They also happen to be some of the most breathtaking bus journeys I’ve ever taken. Luckily, they were soundtracked with some really great music.
Wuhan – Guangzhou
Before I could actually get to Vietnam, I had to get to an airport that would actually take me there. To do this, I took the five hour bullet train down to Guangzhou, almost directly below Wuhan, near China’s southern coast. That journey gave me the chance to catch up on an album that had been released that morning – Savages’ Adore Life. Getting the train in China can be a somewhat stressful experience – the chaos of hundreds of impatient people stampeding through the narrow corridors of an extremely fast train with the prospect of five hours of staring blankly out the window into dark countryside is a little soul destroying. I thought Savages’ post-punk onslaught would allow me to take out some much needed frustration. Unfortunately, I found the album to be a disappointment (I loved their visceral debut), but the almost-title track centrepiece ‘Adore’ is all atmospheric guitars and slow build that crescendoes near to the point of euphoria…and is then snatched away just before you can have it. This while frontwoman Jehnny Beth questions “Do you adore life?”. I didn’t quite then, but I would soon.
Guangzhou – Ho Chi Minh City
After the literal and figurative damp squib of Guangzhou (it rained the whole time and was a miniature, less exciting Hong Kong), I had to contend with a short flight to the city formerly known as Saigon in southern Vietnam. A multitude of anxieties including a dislike of flying, not knowing exactly what to expect in terms of our visa application on arrival and Chinese airlines’ notorious ability to make luggage disappear into thin air made my desire to let something brand new thrash my eardrums wane. Instead, I relaxed into someone familiar and reliable: David Bowie. I’d listened to his last record countless times since the sad news of his passing and when I left China, my feelings about this still resonated strongly. Blackstar is an unbelievable work of art, and it is both because of and despite the fact that Bowie was in the shape he was in when he made it that it is such. To allow something as dark and hopeless as knowing what was to come but to conceal it from so many people, both friends and strangers, to push you to create something so meaningful, intricate and beautiful is testament to everything Bowie stood for. It is when the harmonica comes in on this track, the last on the album, an obvious call back to ‘A New Career in a New Town’ and a point in his career where he felt hope amongst a lot of darkness, that hits home just how important an artist he was and will continue to be.
Ho Chi Minh City – Dalat
As it was, there was very little to worry about on arrival in Vietnam’s largest city, other than an over zealous taxi driver with a meter that ran too quickly. Ho Chi Minh City was a bewildering place to visit. Hectic to the point of danger, with bikes and mopeds buzzing through the streets like wasps, it was a city so full of energy that I couldn’t help be overwhelmed by it. It was so unlike anywhere I had ever experienced. There are a lot of people here in Wuhan, but the density of the inhabitants in HCM gave it a sort of charm – in other words, it wasn’t just really annoying. As I ended my few days there, I visited the War Remnants Museum, surely one of the most poignant and thought-provoking museums in South East Asia. Of course, the conflict in Vietnam, and some of the atrocities committed there, are well documented in film, music and literature and I had been exposed to them many times in my life already. Here, though, it took on a more coherent meaning, being in the place it happened and with all the information laid out in front of me, even if through the lens of a Communist government with an agenda. It was impossible to argue with some of the evidence on show. I left on the night bus headed for Dalat, located in the Vietnamese Central Highlands, in a more reflective mood and so I turned to this EP track from Majical Cloudz. It suited my more downbeat mood (especially in the cramped confines of the bus), with its eerie back-masked guitars and Devon Welsh’s watery imagery.
Dalat – Mui Ne
Dalat ended up being one of my favourite places in Vietnam. Tucked away in the mountains, the picturesque hill town gave me a chance to recuperate after the polar opposite experience in the big city. The air was cooler and the roads were quiet. I was able to rent a bike and cycle into the mountains to Truc Lam Pagoda, a peaceful, golden monastery by Tuyen Lam Lake. There are virtually no backpackers in Dalat, a stark contrast to HCM, and so I was able to while away the hours in its quaint cafes eating delicious food without disturbance (shout out to Bicycle Up Cafe for one of the best coconut milk chicken curries I’ve ever tasted). From Dalat, I took a minibus with around ten other people to the coastal town of Mui Ne. On the journey, I witnessed enough sights to fill a few Thomas Hardy novels with overly descriptive prose. We sped through winding roads, up steep climbs, preposterously close to the sheerest cliffside and, once we passed the summit of these paths’ highest peaks, we hurtled down dusty troughs while PJ Harvey’s most recent single marched in my headphones. Her last record, Let England Shake, is one of my favourites of recent years, and ‘The Wheel’ promises that her soon to be released next album will be as vital and current as her last. The violent and disturbing images that her lyrics evoked at that time seemed all too apt as we drove through lands that were previously touched by similar aggression.
Mui Ne – Nha Trang
Mui Ne is inexplicably filled with Russians. The town is made up of one 10km road, hotels, bars and restaurants either side, one side of which backs onto crystal ocean and a windy front that kicks up sand onto sunbathers and kite surfers alike. Across this short stretch, I saw more Russian in menus than Vietnamese – a truly odd discovery. Mui Ne was uneventful, simply because the only thing on my agenda there was the beach. I hadn’t seen such a thing in around two and a half years – appealing beaches are a little hard to come by near Wuhan. The highlight by far was a visit to Mui Ne’s neighbouring red and white sand dunes. We travelled for under an hour, moving from relative civilisation to total desert – only seemingly untouched sand for miles. So, I didn’t listen to much music there (I don’t want sand to get into the crevices of my beloved Marshall headphones!). But as we rode up the coast towards Vietnam Party Central, Nha Trang, I dipped into The Stone Roses hugely underrated second album, The Second Coming. Mui Ne isn’t the prettiest beach in the world, but it still really pretty. The Second Coming doesn’t come close to something as seminal as The Stone Roses self-titled debut, but it’s still a solid piece of Led Zeppelin-esque guitar shredding fantasy, with more stripped back songs like ‘Tightrope’ peppered in (again, kind of like Led Zeppelin).
Nha Trang – Hoi An
I was only in Nha Trang for a night but I can’t say I’d highly recommend it. The locale is striking, a sprawling city perched on the beach and shielded with mountains all around. It’s supposed to be where you to get properly boozed in Vietnam but, while I go in for that almost too often, I could pretty much do that anywhere throughout the country and there was nothing in particular that really inspired me to go for it. Well, there was that and the prospect of my second night bus, this time without the relative luxury of a hard bed. So, nearly twelve hours sat bolt upright on a bus trying to break the sound barrier still horrendously hungover from the night before did not appeal to me greatly. Still, good tourist that I am, I managed to take in the Po Nagar Cham Towers and Long Son Pagoda with its massive white buddha in under 24 hours. To take the edge off the journey, I got lost in Dirty Beaches sprawling Drifters/Love is the Devil as I stared through the bus window at street vendors on the roadside and into the living rooms of houses illuminated by neon-lit shrines that sit as centrepieces. We were driving up the coast once more, and out of Southern Vietnam, towards some even greater places.