Hoi An – Hue
I arrived in Vietnam’s under appreciated jewel, Hoi An, before any of the small town’s tourist population flooded into the streets. In the twilight, Hoi An was at the pinnacle of its dream-like nature. Consisting of a still river lined by colourful, untouched ancient houses, Hoi An is a quiet, even sleepy, place that exuded a charm unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. Wandering the cobbled pathways never became boring, only stopping to take respite when I sipped sweet Vietnamese coffee or indulged in the generous array of impressive restaurants. Unlike much of my trip, the music I listened to here proved difficult to replicate the sunniness of my mood. Instead, Parquet Courts’ first single from their upcoming Human Performance, ‘Dust’, came to soundtrack my miserable hangover as I partied from the Tet celebrations (Lunar New year) to my last night in this wonderful town. Finding myself once more on an uncomfortable bus with a severe headache, the band’s call to arms – “sweep” – did nothing to help my mood as we careered over seemingly cavernous chunks on the dusty road to Hue.
Hue – Hanoi
I spent a single night in Hue, leaving only the opportunity to visit the former imperial capital’s once grand Citadel – dubbed Vietnam’s Forbidden City. Having been to Beijing’s lavish palace, since preserved after it was “reclaimed by the people”, I was expecting a little more of the same. But after stepping through the main gate, overseen by a portrait of Ho Chi Minh, it was clear that much of the grandeur of the formerly royal grounds had been decimated in conflicts too recent to seem real. After the solemnity of Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum, what had been lost here was even more resonant. On my trip, it was easy to see the affects that war, whether justified or not, had on the peoples and land of this country. But it was also clear to me now that there was so much more to this place than just that piece of history – the friendliness of its population, the food, the beauty – all went a long way to making Vietnam about more than just napalm, Agent Orange and the Viet Cong. As I lay on what would be my final long sleeper bus to the country’s capital, I listened to the new DIIV record. The album is perfect for driving at night, but it is mainly concerned with a kind of conflict – inner conflict with addiction and despair – which contrasted with the impression I had taken from city. The more positive and hopeful ‘Under the Sun’ was a more apt coda to my thoughts coming out of Hue.
Hanoi – Halong Bay
I was abruptly awoken at 4.45am on the outskirts of Hanoi’s Old Quarter (though I didn’t know that yet), a full two hours before expecting to arrive there. How this vehicle managed it is beyond my understanding, but, regardless, its contents were tossed out into the darkness and its passengers were left to make their own way. After finding my bearings, I slurped some pho on a dimly lit street corner and had some coffee to take me through the long wait till check in at my hostel was available. Over the next few days, Hanoi endeared itself to me pretty quickly. It is a constantly moving and fluid city with all sorts of chaos happening at every moment until its untimely 1am curfew comes into affect, at which point it all just stops. I quickly booked my trip to Halong Bay – a trip so hyped that I was very wary of my already impossibly high expectations. Picked up on a small bus to the coast, my group and I were introduced to Jackie, our guide and self-professed “magic man”. When he finally ended his routine, although it was appreciated, I was thankful to get some sleep on the bus. I dozed off with the sweet and sour reflections of Greta Kilne, aka Frankie Cosmos, coming with me.
Halong Bay – Hanoi
Like I said, Halong Bay had a lot to live up to in my mind. UNESCO World Heritage Site; “unparalleled natural beauty”; “most amazing place in the world”; “crystal seas”; “amazing place to party”; “caves, islands, beaches, gibbons” – just some of the stuff I’d heard. What’s really left to say? No words can accurately describe Halong Bay. Not to blow my own trumpet, but my time in China has seemed like a series of events that dramatically increase in how awed they make me feel as each comes and goes, culminating in my trip to the Great Wall last summer. But now, how anything will top Halong Bay is beyond me. Just chilling in a fairly classy boat anchored among some of the bay’s 1,900 limestone islands rising up from the watery depths is worth it alone. Kayaking through parked ships and exploring the oddly shaped stalagmites and stalactites off nearby caves were just very exceptional bonuses. Don’t listen to what I have to say about it; just go. On the drive back after a night spent watching the sunset on the boat and then retiring to our windowed cabins, I couldn’t think of any music on my extremely under equipped iPhone that could quite match the beauty of my experience the previous day. I turned to artists from home – Boards of Canada. I’ve always thought ‘Roygbiv’ was one of those songs that is just so lovely that I would be glad to listen to it on an endless loop ad infinitum, especially in amongst the album it appears on, Music Has the Right to Children, which mixes ambient interludes with extended beat driven pieces. And yet, its a song that Boards of Canada chose to keep short, making its beauty a kind of fleeting and intangible beauty that is at once there and then suddenly gone.
Hanoi – Nanning
Worried that arriving back in Hanoi after such a unique trip would be underwhelming, I threw myself head first into some hardcore tourism, hitting the museums, the bars, the alleyways and the temples hard. I’m not sure I left anything untouched. The Women’s Museum and the Museum of Ethnology are two of the best curated museums I’ve been to in Asia, the former giving an insight into the important role that women played in the history of Vietnam along with in depth looks at the family and fashion; and the latter, dedicated to educating about Vietnam’s 53 recognised ethnic minority groups. I would seriously recommend making time to visit these museums. It cannot go unmentioned that I paid my respects to Vietnam’s revered Ho Chi Minh, his embalmed body lying in state in an imposing mausoleum located on a large complex alongside the Presidential Palace and Ho’s modest stilt house where he spent the later years of his life. It’s actually commonplace for Communist figureheads to end up this way after their deaths, and this takes my tally to two out of five having previously visited Chairman Mao in his much more imposing mausoleum at Tiananmen Square. Continuing that trend, when the day was winding down and I wanted to relax with a beer that wasn’t at Beer Corner, Mao’s Red Lounge, a short walk away from the busy crossroads, provided some stylish surroundings and cheap, free flowing drinks.
Now, as a huge Kanye West fan (and apologist) to find that he had released his, long time in the making, new album The Life of Pablo while I was in Hanoi meant that I had to do pretty much anything I could to hear it. And so, this release dominated much of my listening as my trip wound down. This song stood out as I had made Arthur Russell’s World of Echo available to listen to on my Spotify account ages ago and had never got round to giving it a listen. To hear Russell’s distinct, and even more obscured than usual voice, pop up on this Kanye track as a sample made me take notice. While Kanye’s new one may be plagued with lazy, and at times even embarrassing, lyrics, it shows that he is still a producer of extraordinary talent with an eclectic ear for really great music.
Nanning – Wuhan
And as if like that, my time in Vietnam was over. It was time to get back to China and to do so I boarded a bus with fifty other Chinese people to make the three hour journey to the border. As usual, the crossing seemed to take an interminably long time but once across I jumped on a golf buggy (yeah, really) which took me to a car park where yet another coach would make the final leg of the journey to Nanning. There I would stay for less than twelve hours in order to catch the fast train back to Wuhan the next morning. The bus was rough and ragged and my travel companions were almost left behind at a so-short-it-was-pointless pit stop. If it wasn’t for this infectious thirteen minute synthesiser romp by the near-mythical pioneer of Nigerian electro-rock music, William Onyeabor, I’m not sure I could have stood this much travelling in such a short time. Thankfully, the south of China is as filled with luscious greenery and arrestingly shaped mountain ranges as most of Vietnam, making the bus journey a sight worth seeing in itself. Vietnam was a vibrant and enticing place – I found it a bit of a wrench to leave. If you are wary of the backpacking scene, drunken antics and trouble making, the country will help you relax. And if you’re a backpacker just looking for a booze fuelled good time, try to remember that, despite the extremely cheap beer, Vietnam has a lot more to offer.