The boy whose hand I held

After sharing my travel memory yesterday other memories came flooding into my mind. I realised how lucky I’ve been, not just in the range of places I’ve visited, but also the many vivid and memorable moments along the way. In the conversation yesterday I said that travel is the best education because, if you’re open to it, it gives you perspective and insight, and hopefully compassion.

My travels are my most precious possessions. Travel was finishing school to me – it put into context so much I’d been formally educated, and otherwise had observed along the way. I was wide-eyed and open to it, curious and bold and social. There was joy in humping a pack or figuring out a map or hoisting myself onto a bus or train, or just to sit in a cafe and watch the local world go by. Even the difficult stuff – awful accommodations, mixed up flights, stuff stolen, the occasional confronting image – was of some value. I flatter myself by thinking that I was open to learn, and in doing so gained a measure of wisdom.

Back in 2001 I ended up in Vietnam towards the tail-end of a tortuous and unpredictable journey. I had flown to Singapore, and from there to Paris, then after roaming the French countryside I returned to Singapore again, more in hope than expectation. It all remains so vivid to me. From Singapore I took off to Vietnam, I don’t remember why now.

I was weary, in spirit as well as body. I had left home with hopes of something only to have them disappointed. I had fled to Paris, a familiar place, to get away from that. I remember laying in a bathtub in Deauville and sobbing (yes, real men do cry, sometimes). I walked the streets and sat in bars and looked out windows at passing scenery and rationalised my circumstances and attempted to come to terms with what had happened. I was all inward.

On the other side of the world back at home my family and friends wondered what was happening and worried after me. In Singapore the woman I left there sent me concerned emails, guilty at what had occurred. I thought much about all of that, but didn’t connect with any of it. Rare for me I kept to myself on my travels, self-absorbed and self-contained. After a couple of weeks the raw wound had mended sufficiently for me to return to Singapore.

I festered in Singapore for another week or two staying with friends, not with her. She reached out to me, but I was not ready yet to meet with her again. I lived quietly in the spare room of my friend’s apartment in a modest, Muslim suburb of Singapore. I was not yet ready to go home, but nor could I stay.

I suppose that’s how I ended up in Vietnam. It was somewhere I’d always wanted to go, it was nearby, and well, I had nothing better to do. I flew into Ho Chi Minh city had adventure there, then travelled down the Mekong. I was physically tired, as I said. I felt as if I’d been hoisting the same pack for months. I was sad to, but there were moments when I found myself come to life (by the end of my trip I had revivified sufficiently to have a friendly encounter with two very sporting Japanese girls staying at the same hotel as me in Hoi An – but that’s another story).

I returned from the Mekong and found myself staying in the Vice Presidential suite of one of the fancy hotels facing the river. I had rocked up bearded and untidy and wanting a decent room I could make myself human again. I’m sorry sir, the concierge had told me, but the only room available is the Vice Presidential suite. I prepared to turn and go when he spoke again. Would that be alright? No extra charge, of course. I told him it was fine. For three luxurious days I lay in the huge bed and splashed in the luxurious spa bath and read sprawled upon the sofa. I braved the city, taking off as I had learned from the locals, from the curb and trusting that the stream of motorcyclists would pass about me.

I looked at my map. I read my guide-book. I decided to try Vung Tau, and if not there, then further north to Long Hai. I caught the hydrofoil to Vung Tau and didn’t like the look of it and hopped aboard a taxi for Long Hai.

In the middle of Long Hai was a an old French Colonial building, easily the biggest in town. It was the hotel too, and I was the only guest. Out the back was a weary ent te cas tennis court the hotel workers would play on, there was the smell of lavender in the air, and geckos curled, fixed to the hotel walls.

That first morning I took a walk by the beach. Pulled up on the sand were fishing boats the fishermen tended to while their children roamed at their feet. Every person I saw looked up at me and smiled, and said hello. Every one of them. I answered everyone too. Hello, I said, hi, xin chao, how are you, and so on. It was the same every day with every person I met.

I walked by the water’s edge towards the distant headland. I had become a great curiosity and to my great surprise found a growing band of children trailing me. They gathered one by one, joining the curious crowd while their fathers looked up from their work and smiled at it. There must have been two dozen of them at the peak. I felt like the Pied Piper of Hamlin.

I stopped once and tried to talk to them. It felt odd to be such a celebrity. I wrote my name in the wet sand with a piece of driftwood, and said it aloud for them. There was great amusement in that, and one small boy wrote something in the sand beside my name.

By the time I reached the distant headland only one remained, a small boy of about 8 with a book of lottery tickets in his hand, the same boy who had written in the sand. We climbed the stairs to the promontory, and at the top he slipped his small hand into mine. At first I felt embarrassed by it; then strangely warmed.

I imagine if you saw that now all sorts of connotations would come to mind – a tall, fair-haired haired western male hand in hand with a local boy. I don’t think that occurred to me then. It was not the place for such thoughts. It was simple and kind and I gazed out over the sea with his hand in mine, glad for the affection.

It was a memorable place of great hospitality. By night I would sit in one of the open air ‘cafe’s at the edge of the breakwater and have beer with a great shard of ice in it, or a sweet Vietnamese coffee, or a refreshing lime and palm sugar dink – I couldn’t get enough of those. They would fuss over me grateful for the reflected celebrity my presence gave them. None spoke English. We would nod and gesture and smile and I would look out to sea as the fishing boats lit by small lanterns bobbed with the swell in the night sky, like fireflies in the distance.

It was what I needed. It allowed me to recover for Hoi An, where something more of myself returned. I went back to Singapore, and eventually to home – 2 days before 9/11. But that’s another story too.

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