Thursday, 29 September 2011

Week 4; A dispatch from 'Nam

I've been in Vietnam for 9 days now. I started in Hanoi and have worked my way down to Hoi An on the central coast. Hanoi is definitely the most interesting city I've been to so far - about a million times better than stupid old Bangkok and Chiang Mai. (I have taken against Thailand quite massively since leaving it, quite possibly because I didn't experience the best that it has to offer, which is, by all accounts, its beaches.) Hanoi is a fascinating, overwhelming, lively, insane place. It was brilliant, but I did feel quite keenly that I would've liked some company there. Big cities are tough on your own generally, I think - I can imagine that if I was a newcomer to London on my own, that it'd be pretty hard work. I ploughed on anyway, feeling more confident a few weeks into my travels, trying bits of streetfood (but nowhere near enough), sampling the notorious and insanely cheap Hanoi draft beer, wandering around the lake and hanging out in cafes. I did meet some nice people in Hanoi but mainly just as passing ships. I did feel by the time that I left the city that I'd barely scratched the surface, but it wasn't quite chiming with my mood and I didn't want to force it (this is meant to be fun, not work) so i moved on.

Sandwiched in between the nights I spent in Hanoi I took a boat tour to the beautiful Ha Long bay for a few days. Amazing landscape and great to chill on a boat and beach for a bit, but it was a bit 'organised fun', and all the activities-swimming, kayaking, hiking- were all a bit rigidly structured, although I have to say that the kayaking was pretty spectacular, going through caves and looking up at the rock formations. We spent one night on a boat and one night in a beach hut on an island in the bay. There was karaoke one night, which reminded me of what a bloody great bringer together of people the old karaoke is. Bizarrely and for some reason, I ended up doing Yellow Submarine.

It was on this tour where i actually realised one of the reasons I have been finding solo travelling a bit tough. It's basically because most of the tourist industry out here - the hotels, the activities etc - seem to be organised for couples. In all of the hotels/ guesthouses I've been to there's been no such thing as a single room, so if you're on your own you have to pay extra for a double room (though you might get them down by a few dollars). I paid more for the Ha Long bay tour because I wasn't splitting the cost of the double room I was staying in. I've met way more couples than I was expecting to since I've been away and it's really given me an outside perspective into that whole world. In group situations, like that tour, the couples gravitated towards each other, forming neat little foursomes at dinner and on the beach.

So now I'm in Hoi An, where, like in Luang Prabang, I've been having those moments where it's all slotting into place again. I could easily see myself spending a good while here, but I've met so many people who are treating their travels as some kind of ordeal they have to get through and who are only spending 2 days in each place. I bumped into a really nice English couple here, who I'd met in Hanoi, and they looked exhausted. 'It's all getting a bit much' the woman told me. 'We're getting really snappy with each other'. I asked her how long they were spending in Hoi An and she told me only 2 days. 'We've got a lot to get through' she added. I've met quite a few people with this attitude. Another woman from New Zealand yesterday was complaining of how tired she felt and listing the things she needed to 'get out of the way' (not 'enjoy', 'experience' or 'appreciate') on her travels. Why do this to yourself? It's supposed to be an enjoyable experience. If you like somewhere, stay there, and miss out something else. Ideally, I'd spend another week here. I've been wandering round the town for 2 days but I want to hire a bike one day and go out to the beach, I'd like to do a cooking class. I want to hire a motorcycle driver to take me out to see the My Son ruins and quite frankly I'd like to spend a few more days just hanging out in cafes reading War and Peace.

I'm trying to go with my instincts and enjoy everywhere at the pace that I want to but I can feel at the same time a touch of the travellers' restlessness rubbing off on me. I'm thinking 'But if i stay longer in Hoi An, I won't get to see Nha Trang, and perhaps I won't get as long in Saigon!". I'll let you know how this internal wrangle goes. Either way, i have to admit, it's a pretty nice position to be in.

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