“When are you going to Nam?” he asked, the casual euphemism leaving a sour taste in her mouth; the abbreviation indicative of a veiled myopic worldview.
The enclosure which housed the terminal gates for departure was like a warped time capsule for the senses, the walls draped in sparkling shades of virginal white. She suspected some form of sound engineering, for the usual ambience of humdrum chatter had been replaced with an artificial constancy which in combination with the overbearing whiteness manufactured the intangible sense of loss one felt after visiting a shrink. She reasoned that the setup captured the mercurial essence of the traveler, exempt from routine and subject only to a timeline dictated by the whims and fancies of the traveler themselves.
She mused that being on a plane was similar to an extended bus ride where the driver would absurdly crank up the air conditioning in the coldest of winters; human intervention ineffectually deviating from its intended purpose.
Evening had fallen, twenty-four hours having passed since she had last been in contact with any sort of fresh air. She recalled reading about various means of American and Japanese torture which emphasized the importance of breaking the mind. So this is what it was like to be hapless and helpless, vacillating between fantasy and reality.
The aerated air was tortuously stifling after the fifth walk up and down the airport aisles; the dimly lit lounge and Sinatra’s The Lady is a Tramp feeling slightly nightmarish to her sleep deprived senses. She walked past the iridescent lights of long abandoned makeup counters which were kind to her hereditary eyebags; raucous protagonists from foreign films left to entertain any of the passengers who still remained into the early hours of the morning and unto a prayer hall where she quietly sat until the bleary-eyed terminal began to exhibit signs of life.
They arrived at the line at Hanoi airport for obtaining a visa, filled with long lines of weary travelers. A single TV screen flashed every few minutes with the forthcoming expectant candidate. SEUNG. PARK. SHIN HYE. Surprise registered on her face as she turned to see a group of leathery, tanned Korean farmers and reasoned that the overwrought, wretched look was transferable across nationalities.
They were kept company by dainty smog, the humidity casting a thin sheen over lush foliage propped up by disproportionally thin trunks as they drove towards their hotel. They passed surprisingly robust bonsai trees which seemed as if they could withstand the most difficult of storms and overarching limbs of willow trees draped magnanimously over telephone poles. The quaint architectural remains of colonial dominance manifested themselves in numerous French style villas’ shaped by intricate balconies which opened up into small patios with markedly uniform railings. A birds eye view revealed an omnipresent steel water tank snugly nestled within the parameters of each open-air rooftop propped up on thin legs of steel, and she was reminded of a futuristic Laika in a space suit.
The tour guide for the Hanoi city tour prefixed each new announcement with a low-pitched drawn-out “excuse me everybody,” which although had the unintended effect of sounding like a stern schoolmaster reprimanding his students had the desired net effect of keeping the group together.
They were accosted by slouching men in arresting green uniforms at Ba Dinh Square, however her initial unease was mitigated by the individuals’ lack of assertion and ill-fitting uniforms which she felt left them better relegated to the archives of historical memorabilia. “No cigarette,” one said, shuffling over to snatch a newly lit smoke from an Italian tourist; sucking on it vociferously as he made his way back to his post. In contrast to their counterparts, the white uniforms in front of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum stood stiffly to attention in full-blown regalia, a reflection of their conspicuous position in the public eye.
A moment of confusion when the guide motioned her to sit in the front right seat, before she caught herself and remembered that the cars manufactured here were of American make. Acknowledgement of this fact made it slightly easier for her to digest that the cars were not driving on the wrong side of the road as she emerged into convoluted traffic with vehicles converging from all directions, like train lines on a map terminating at a central station. She found her hesitation confounding, with the expectation that years of experience in navigating the chaotic streets of Mumbai would have engendered some form of respite against the onslaught of vehicles.
The dynamic here was different, she realized after a few days. The Vietnamese were ready to accommodate the enterprising pedestrian by diverging like a fast-moving current around a rock. It was up to the tourist to stand stock-still, or inch forward with unswerving constancy.
“Turtles are one of the most revered animals in Vietnam”, the tour guide continued as they left a pagoda and emerged back onto the main street, and she was reminded of the illegally farmed baby turtles they had seen flailing around near the Red Bridge in Hoan Kiem Lake. The district was rampant with the slight whiff of sewage, which was gradually overshadowed by the pungent fumes of traditional Chinese medicine as they stepped into a lane in Old Hanoi.
She realized they had traveled further from the city when the French style villas began to disintegrate into various states of disrepair; grime encrusted terraces covered with tarpaulin shielding open balconies in lieu of curtains which concealed weathered faces peeping out from various orifices. They passed a funeral party which was in the third day of its inception and she was reminded of the Muong, one of the ethnic groups of Vietnam for whom death was more of a celebration than life; the funeral carrying on for twelve days.
The air was fetid as they rowed towards the Perfume Pagoda; stagnant swamp water fostering a festering mosquito laden estuary fused with the galling stink of rotting meat. They were kept company by neon blue crested dragonflies which skimmed the water like a herd of loyal sheepdogs, adopting a V-formation atypical to migratory birds in flight. Quiet droplets of rain formed miniature circles in a symphonic manner, with disquieting regularity.
The island was pockmarked with a variety of lampposts ranging from electric to Victorian-style, amongst which they saw the occasional dog. The green military style hats made a re-appearance followed by steely eyed villagers as the boat nudged itself onto the mangrove infested banks.
She walked over to see a group of tourists staring in horror at a nightmarish cage emblazoned with the words: BUY ME TO SET ME FREE. A hamster was cruelly wrapped in chicken wire which gave the animal just enough space to move forward a distance double its body length and back, while distressed birds flew agitatedly from one corner to another.
“It’s all for show,” the guide said. “They release the animals once tourists make a payment and re-introduce them back into the cage. It’s all a means of extra money. Really, the animals are their friends.”
They sat drenched with sweat in a jam-packed hall with ceiling fans running fruitlessly at full capacity and she left to go to the bathroom. It was only when the squat toilet remained a dehydrated yellow that she cursed Western reflex, fishing out urine stained toilet paper and depositing it in a bin designated exclusively for this purpose.
The drive to Halong Bay was mildly uneventful; the only puzzling circumstance a figure on the road dressed in a strange amalgation of shorts and high heels and what appeared to be the top half of a niqab. She wondered if they had a scarcity of pollution masks, the loss of city privilege spawning a need for resourcefulness unhindered by the authoritarian views of religious zealots.
Evening fell as their ship carefully navigated through the labyrinth of gigantic limestone islets which comprised the bay, eventually lurching to a halt. The only light came from ships so numerous they appeared to form a city stretching from east to west; back-lighting the oblique formations like the hazy undercurrents of the Mariana Trench. They faced a brief interruption as the hum of the generator ceased momentarily; causing the sculptures to morph into gargantuan prehistoric monoliths ready to disappear into the ocean from whence they had emerged like a tale from mythical folklore, until the backup generator kicked in and reduced the structures to ordinary mountains.
“It’s time for the Sunset Party,” their guide informed them, conveniently disregarding the pitch black sky as he began to lay out an assortment of wine and fresh fruit.