Flying in over Ho Chi Minh City, at first it seems like everything outside the plane is black, except the intersecting dotted lines of lights spread out below us. The lights are strung like fairylights in a gentle pattern.
I look close, and see some of the lights are blinking. Closer still, as the plane slowly begins its descent, and the darkness in between these yellow and orange lights becomes roads, then buildings, with the occasional river splashed in between.
The city pulls itself together before my eyes, a dark city that I haven’t got the measure of yet. Then I notice the soft puffs of black clouds that float above this city of lights. I’ve never seen clouds quite like this before. It turns out that they’re dirty clouds, smog. During the day, they keep Ho Chi Minh – or Saigon, I call the city by both names but am never sure exactly which one is appropriate, as it’s not my job to say – blanketed in a light haze.
South-East Asia is new to me. Asia is new to me. I am a “Yes, I’ve been to parts of Europe, and oh yes, I did the J1 – Chicago, you know…” Western traveller. I’ve never strapped on a lumpy backpack – with its odd waist straps that bring relief – before. I’m not a backpacker.
But my sister and her husband are, and they and my other sister are the reason I’m on a plane from Dubai to HCMC, after getting off another plane from Dublin to Dubai, nearly getting lost in Dubai airport, and taking an airport bus that could only go 25km an hour and which seemed like it was never going to reach gate number 16A (or was it A16?).
They’re the joyful push behind my 16 hours of travelling, why I’m on this plane above the lights and watching the puffs of smoggy clouds, wondering what will greet me when I land.
Saigon is hot, humid, muggy, loud, noisy. It welcomes you with hot doughy arms and squeezes you until you can’t quite breathe. It gives you a sore throat from talking – shouting? – loudly. It keeps you permanently alert, thanks to the thousands of motorbikes that pass by, in front, behind, (and if they had their way, through you) everyday. But it has its parks too, where older men and women work out vigorously, and where you can take a quick gulp of cleaner air.
Noise, heat, smog – these are things that make Saigon what it is. But so too do wafts of food and smoke from food carts, laidback drivers on unbearably busy roads, businesses of all type and description co-existing in the same cramped space. Scandi-style cafés in old apartment buildings formerly occupied by Communist soldiers. Neon signs and fairylight-covered cafés. Young people gathered behind the grand Opera House for milk tea. Toddlers and people in Pikachu costumes playing near the fountains on Nguyen Hue street. Dogs with prominent teats, street vendors selling mangoes or fish.
Saigon is vibrant, busy, cosmopolitan. It feels both incredibly foreign and incredibly familiar to me. I don’t know my way around but I don’t feel entirely lost. The city is welcoming, and though tourists are welcomed here, it feels like Saigon could carry on without them. It is its own city.
The traffic in Saigon can be scary, but despite my fears I get on the back of a motorbike for a nighttime trip around the city. What unfolds is one of the best experiences of my life. We cram crispy vegetable rolls wrapped in lettuce into our mouths, slurp down steaming sweet and salty tofu and mushrooms in gravy, drink peach iced tea, wander down a busy city boulevard with Ho Chi Minh himself looking down on us.
From my perch on the motorbike, inside the swell of the traffic, I can see up close the families crammed together on bike after bike. The babies are wide-eyed and calm. On another day, I see a man carrying a huge freshly-bought flatscreen TV on the back of a scooter.
From Saigon, we fly north to Danang and take a taxi to Hoi An, an old city turned tourist paradise. I eat tofu and rice and wonder if my precautions around food poisoning aren’t a touch on the anxious side. I realise that Vietnam isn’t so different to home in many ways.
We drink on a boat moored along the river and check Whatsapp. We go to a Mr Bean bar that plays Drake and sells cheap mojitos, and talk to other tourists and feel like tourists in a tourist town. We end up in a club that’s not supposed to be open, DJing using YouTube. A man there gets aggressive with an American tourist, for some unknown reason.
On a chair in the corner is a plastic bag filled with gifts we bought in a store along a long row of tourist shops. I keep one eye on it all night, in case it’s stolen, even though everything in it costs about 20 euro and no one in the club would want to steal it.
Hoi An is full of beautiful squat yellow buildings, and I wonder what it was like here before tourists started to take over. The road from Danang is full of small construction sites – this place will be very different in a few years’ time.
From Hoi An to Hanoi, and its French Quarter, with its byzantine streets (here, I feel like I never get my bearings). We drink wine in a French bar that has an obnoxious sign outside that proclaims ‘NO noodles. NO rice’. We notice too late and feel guilty – why would you put that sign up? We hope our presence doesn’t indicate we agree with its sentiment.
The small part of Hanoi we see is one of small plastic chairs, meat sizzling on pavement grills, beer drunk at all hours, tourists in baggy trousers, beauty salons, cheap drink. Vietnam, a country with a long and at times dark history, is so full of life. You don’t become an expert on a country after one visit, but if you’re lucky you snatch a sense of it.
After Hanoi, we escape city life and go to an island. Phu Quoc, with its golden sands and warm calm sea, is like a dream. I feel a bit smug uploading photos of myself by a palm tree onto Instagram. Back home in Dublin, November is coming to a close and it’s cold. It’s that time of year in Ireland when it seems like there are mere minutes between sunrise and sunset, and here we are watching that sunset from a beach. Where are we again?
I slather on the factor 50 and can’t imagine having to wear a jacket ever again. The most pressing worry is where to go for dinner that night. It’s another – privileged, worry-free -world and I’m glad of it, yet know that it’s temporary.
We shuck our sandals off and play card games as the sun sets, drink soda water and vodka and listen to overly-loud dance music. Mosquitoes try to nibble on us and we inhale clouds of toxic Deet while fending them off.
Final trip before home is back to HCMC, but Phu Quoc still lingers in my mind. I’ve spent 10 days in Vietnam and can never – of course – really know what it is like to live in the country. I feel like I’ve only scraped the surface in acknowledging what it witnessed in the 20th century alone.
But personally, I’ve learned that what seems like a big, huge thing – a trip more than halfway across the world, alone – is achievable. Not just achievable, but enjoyable. I leave with a sense of pride in my sister and her husband for how they have not just adjusted but thrived while travelling, and hope that a little bit of their spirit has rubbed off on me.
2016 has in many ways been a shitshow of a year. We’ve had terrorist attacks, shock referendums, even more shocking elections, and are now facing into 2017 with a very troubling man about to take control of one of the world’s superpowers. It’s a worrying time, and I’m nervous about what lies in store for us all in the coming year. But I realise too that, among the upsets and events on a large scale, there are the private, personal victories too. Those are the ones that sustain us, no matter how small or trivial they seem.