Have you ever been so hot, you could see your skin sizzle in the sun, popping like hot oil in a pan? Could you genuinely hear the marrow boiling in your bones? Has your face ever melted off, dripping from your skull like a Nazi opening the Arc of the Covenant?
Because if you have, you’ve gone quite mad.
However, it feels like those things might be possible in Vietnam during the month of May. Forty degrees centigrade is no environment for a human, and yet, there they are, the denizens of Saigon, wearing hoodies in the heat, and gloves in the sun.
Thankfully, Vietnam has its own Cameron Highlands-style hill station, namely a town called Dalat. Its altitude makes it a blessedly temperate place to visit, and a welcome break for our delirious pores.
I wrote this in Bangkok airport as we were about to begin our voyage back to London, to dampen the misery of ending our trip. There are still a couple of entries to make – for central Vietnam, northern Thailand and Bangkok – but alas, I’ll be writing them from England…
So here, in no particular order, are a few things that make ending a six-month jaunt around Asia slightly more endurable.
1 – Sunshine
It might sound contradictory to miss Britain for the sunshine, having spent six months in south-east Asia during its summer months. But it’s a different kind of sunshine – the kind you can stand in for more than 10 minutes and feel it on your skin without peeling like a snake. The kind that makes you want to absorb it, not hide in the shadows.
Ho Chi Minh City is hectic – let’s just get that out there. The streets are a torrent of traffic, through which you pass like a miniature Moses; while the biblical plagues of rats and cockroaches will have you worrying after your first-born.
But I’ll pass over those minor details and skip to the chase: we were here to meet some mates.
The first was Robbo – that’s his name, not John, as he sometimes introduces himself; just Robbo – who I went to school with and have known for two, long, pun-filled decades. He is almost infuriatingly kind and generous and thoughtful – if that’s possible – and is as funny as his favourite joke:
“Why did the girl fall off the swing? – Because she had no arms.”
As I’ve mentioned before, Swarana and I are not very good at backpacking. No more evident is that fact than in our laborious exploration of Vietnam.
Most people pick a route: north to south or south to north. We essentially did laps.
We had pals to meet, you see; friends were coming over from the US, the UK and South Korea, not to mention a mate who actually lives in Vietnam. And in our endeavour to see them all, we went to Hue twice, Hoi An twice, Saigon twice and Hanoi THREE TIMES.
This makes a mockery of chronological blog-mongering.
So, in an effort to retain some semblance of form in this account, I’ll be merging all three visits to Hanoi in one post, despite many of the events book-ending either side our 45 days in the country.
Back in November 2014, Swarana and I threw a little leaving-drinks shindig in the Earl Haig in Crouch End. One of our friends, a well-travelled English fella called Martin, sat me down and said, “Mate, promise me one thing, make sure you’re in Chiang Mai on 14th April – it’s New Year there and this bloke I met in Thailand told me it’s mental.”
I asked what happens. “I don’t actually know because I couldn’t make it. But that’s it, see? That’s why you have to make it! Make sure you get Swarana there for the 14th.”
Ah, Vang Vieng. What a peculiar place it is. It’s undoubtedly most famous for its drunken tubing scene, but there’s much more to the beautiful mountain setting than getting ripped off by locals and being sick in a river.
Indeed, it’s the binge-drinking idiocy that makes graffiti like “Tourists Go Home” completely unsurprising. It’s a place that sold itself to tourists, but now wants its town back.