Yeah, I know; it’s almost February and I still want to talk about 2016. We’ve had enough of that monstrous year, I get it. But I want to ignore the political clusterfuck still smouldering in the UK and US, the hideous terrorist attacks in Paris, Berlin, Istanbul and the rest of the world, the rise of the alt-right (read: actual fucking Nazis), the permeation of fake news via social media, the gradual dissolution of political opposition in the UK, and the ever-increasing inequality our populace continues to vote for, like foxes voting Tory.
No – I want to talk about 2016 on a personal level. Because I’m a jabbering narcissist and assume I’m more important than our crumbling civilisation. It’s probably that narcissism that’s got us in this mess in the first place, but I’m a “Millennial” so I’ll do what I like, thanks.
So – 2016 was pretty mental.
For a start, I got married. I know, right?! I mean, who does that? Crazy stuff – but I have to say, it is rather nice. Actually, it’s almost exactly the same as before, but every now and then I mention “My wife” and I wonder whose brain I’ve taken control of, because that surely can’t be me, can it? With a wife? Like, I actually tricked someone into marrying me? And she PROMISED to stay with me, with no returns, and no backsies? Astonishing.
Finally, after two and a half years of failed attempts, the skies cleared, the winds calmed, and Mr Branson adjudged it safe to fly over the fields of Cambridgeshire.
It had been a Christmas present back in 2012. We had tried five times and been thwarted by mild weather conditions – such as “breezes” and “mist” – deemed too hazardous to risk a launch.
At 11pm the night before, we made the call to find out if the flight would go ahead. When it was confirmed, we finished our game of Scrabble – in a haze of excitement and disbelief – and went to bed; we’d have to be at the airfield by 5.30am in the morning.
We met 12 other bleary-eyed passengers at an empty airfield a few miles from Cambridge, and set about helping the pilot inflate the balloon. It took about an hour to get it all set up, inflated, heated and upright.
I’m sorry gang, but I’m just not a terribly big fan of Thailand.
Yes, Thailand has my favourite food – spicy, zest-filled freshness bursting with flavour – and arguably some of the best island beaches, lapped by crystal waters teeming with aquatic life. That is certainly true.
And on occasion it holds a natural beauty that is hard to replicate. For instance, you might snap a shot of three young monks looking at a double rainbow, for instance. Pure, travelling gold.
Alas, I’m afraid to say Thailand has been overrun by a scourge that affects nearly every corner of its land: namely, twats.
Despite its wealth of historical monuments and glorious vistas, central Vietnam in May is an act of self-flagellating masochism.
But let me begin this account from the beginning, with everyone’s favourite travelling trope – a crazy bus story.
We took a sleeper bus from Dalat round the mountains down to Danang, with the rain pounding the windows and the night sky lit by lightning, like an epileptic’s nightmare.
During the night, the bus came to a halt on a twisting mountain road. Up ahead, vehicle floods lit a rabble of people inspecting some obstacle in the way. I needed to stretch my legs so I got out to have a nose at what was going on.
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.”