So you’ve just launched into a travel story. An amazing tale of bravery, derring-do and batik shopping in the face of extreme food poisoning. And you’re just about to reach the climax when someone pipes up:
‘Oh, Baluchistan. I was there before it was trendy.’
Yes, it’s infuriating. No, I can’t help myself. Because (with all due respect to Tabitha Carvan) I did a Vietnamese Christmas, too.
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It was 1990. No internet. No mobile phones. No email. But a rumour, whispered up and down Khao San Road, the infamous Thai traveller’s haunt, that you could get an independent visa to Vietnam for the first time in decades.
It turned out to be true. A few thousand baht under a dusty travel agent’s counter later, I had the mysterious white card with the squiggly writing in my passport (it wasn’t stamped back then) and a Vietnam Airlines ticket to Ho Chi Minh City in my hands.
Most importantly, though, I had The Map.
In the absence of a guidebook, The Map was everything you needed to know about arriving in HCMC. It had been photocopied so many times that bits of it had faded away, but the important parts showed through. Directions for the airport taxi drivers. How to get money – ATMs being a ways off yet. And essentially, the hand-drawn diagram showing how to reach the only traveller’s hostel, via a back alley. It was in a church or convent (the details elude me, but it definitely involved nuns). A cross marked the spot to knock on an unmarked door.
Sitting on my flight, I ran through the little I knew about Vietnam. There’d been a war. I was pretty sure Australia had been in it. (Cut me some slack, I was only 19. Purely coincidentally.)
The Vietnam Airlines stewardess approached. She threw each passenger an apple.
Didn’t millions die and millions more flee? Might they not still be a bit pissed off about that?
My apple thudded onto my lap. Vietnamese customer service in 1990.
Might they see me as the enemy? I fingered The Map again for reassurance.
In six years, Alex Garland would publish his famous novel about a hand-drawn map to a mythical traveller’s paradise. I’ve sometimes wondered since if he’d been here, too.
I emerged at HCM International Airport. A dusty, quiet little airstrip. A few rusty yellow taxis sat in a patch of dirt, their drivers limply sucking on cigarette ends. I walked towards them, The Map held out in front of me like a shield.
When suddenly, a withered old matriarch grabbed me above the elbow, stopping me. Her raspy fingernails gripped my bicep fast. I couldn’t move. I held my breath. Was this it? Was I going to be held accountable for my country’s crimes?
Her toothless mouth broke into a broad grin. She kneaded my fleshy white arms and nodded, approvingly. I have no idea what she sang to me in her sing song tones. ‘My, how white and fat you are!’ maybe. She patted my arm and moved along.
That encounter – incomprehensible and unforgettable – set the tone for the trip. I knocked at the cross, and found a ragtag mob of travellers who’d found their way there like I had. Six of us clubbed together to hire a minivan and driver to take us north. Over the next few weeks we terrified hill tribe children with our blue eyes, and swam at the glorious China Beach. We roamed the empty ruins of an ancient forbidden Khmer city, and detoured to Khe Sanh at my insistence, even though the driver (and my fellow (non-Australian) travellers) never really got why.
We met Vietnamese cowboys with rodeo ponies, and Cao Dai adherents who worship Jesus, Buddha and Victor Hugo (as I understand it. Which I didn’t really).
We never met anyone who held the war against us. Which I thought was pretty big of them. And we never met another tourist. It felt like we had Vietnam to ourselves.
On Christmas Eve, we reached Hue. We cobbled together the trappings of the season as best we could. There wasn’t much to be found, since the free market was limited to a few street stalls selling essentials. Plastic Christmas trees hadn’t made the cut. Yet.
I cut a star out of cardboard. Someone found a dusty bottle of Russian champagne. Dancing was allowed that night, we heard, since it was a special occasion, so ABBA blared from a cassette player. Until mid-night, anyway, when everyone packed up and went home. The regular government price rise was due in two days time, so people needed to get to the market early to stock up.
We retired to our rooms, the only guests in the town’s only foreigner-rated hotel.
Before boarding our train to Hanoi, we tipped our driver $100 in US cash. A year’s wages for him.
My last day in Vietnam, I paid my respects to a waxy Ho Chi Minh. Leaving his mausoleum, I ran into the only other tourists I’d seen. They had the first edition of Lonely Planet Vietnam in their hands.
I’ve been back to Vietnam three times since. The last trip, a late model taxi ferried me along the highway under the gaze of beautiful, neon-lit women draped around bottles of shampoo. Bicycles long ago gave way to scooters which gave way to cars, which now clog every street. Tour buses and guides ply well worn tourist routes (apple chucking not included), and fancy stores sell everything you’d ever wanted and even more you hadn’t. Including plastic Christmas trees, Christmas puddings, and polyester Santa suits, according to Tabitha Carvan’s descriptions of today’s markets. If the desire so takes you.
I lost The Map somewhere along the way. I wish I still had it. Not as much as I wish I’d written a book about a mythical traveller’s destination reached by rumour, of course. But you can’t win ‘em all.
I suppose someone will post a comment about how they snuck into Vietnam without a visa over the Cambodian border when it was still controlled by the Khmer Rouge.
It would serve me right.