Draft extract from my travel memoir
The next day the guesthouse woman very kindly walked me to an open supermarket, Circle K, waited for me whilst I shopped, and then walked me to an open pharmacy. I paid attention so as to learn the way, she pointed out the sign to the hotel alley; I took note of a place selling car oil, a corner with a closed shop, an outdoor gym, and a big bright blue building- a military school, she said. She told me that she opened the guesthouse ten years ago so that her son and daughter could learn English. At the pharmacy she translated so I could get some medicine for Anthony. On the ground in between the pharmacy and the guesthouse were multicoloured shiny pieces of paper from Tet, rough squares like cut up homemade children’s decorations, like confetti.
All around were big new buildings, high rise blocks, dense housing, hotels and offices. One further away building had a spiral bit like Tokyo, like Phnom Penh and amongst all these a tiny old traditional house like a pagoda with a triangle roof, surrounded on all sides by these upstarts. It reminded me of the book The Little House, where a dear little once loved house in the country becomes surrounded by busy roads and new buildings and is forgotten. The house falls into sadness and disrepair, until one day someone falls in love with it and moves it out of the city and lovingly restores it.
Even though it was unlikely, we got scared that Anthony might have malaria. We were more scared about health now we were not in India. After seven months there altogether, India was more familiar, and many more people spoke English. But I just thought, there’s loads of ex pats and foreigners in Hanoi, what do they do, and looked up online, found a hospital popular with Westerners and saved the details. They were open twenty four hours and had an ambulance service. Then I felt better, which is probably why people say to research and note down the details of local hospitals and doctors when travelling.
The family cooked us rice and vegetables, brought up on a tray to our room, huge bowls of steamed rice and lots of lovely fresh chunky vegetables; broccoli, carrots and cauliflower. It was healthy but very plain, maybe the sauces etc had meat in them. Once we had noodles with bits of meat in which we had to leave.
The second day I went to a big supermarket we’d found online, alone, I took so long crossing the road that people stopped and asked if I wanted a taxi. I was anxious, not used to going out alone, anxious about Anthony, and about making decisions- even simple ones like what to buy to eat. A man in the queue behind me actually packed up my bags for me, he didn’t speak any English. It was so nice of him. Back at the guesthouse I asked if they could make us tea, they brought it up in pretty china cups, it felt like such an achievement to ask and get, and we had French stick from the supermarket and oranges with it.
Our guesthouse was down an alleyway, with other houses either side. On the opposite side of the alley were chicken cages, one presumably belonging to the guesthouse, the other to the house next door. The first cage was two tier with no floor, just criss crossed steel bars that I thought looked uncomfortable for their feet. I saw a big plump brown hen sitting down. The hen had a red comb and looked healthy enough. I stood in front, pushed down my sorrow and sent them some love. I told myself the eggs in our supermarkets or the KFC chickens are no better, probably worse off. Sometimes you hear stories of workers in intensive farm settings or slaughterhouses torturing birds (and animals) for fun. Not here, these belonged to the family. The next cage had a solid floor with dirt on it not bars, plus lots of fresh greens and a feeder of corn. lt looked like it had a second tier but it was actually a perch, which chickens like. Better, good, in comparison to the first one.
One day when I was returning to the guesthouse I saw a small fawn and cream coloured cat sitting on the roof of the chicken hut eating some meat. I called to it but it ran away, startled. The next day I was at the desk speaking to the man. In the alley outside the chicken huts was a little handbag sized dog on a chain beside a cardboard box. Later I saw the dog and the cat both inside the box, the dog chained, the cat free, the cat smooching the dog. ‘Friends,’ I said to the man.
Anthony felt slightly better and fed up with being in the room, and we both went to Circle K to eat. It was a small supermarket with a few tables at one end beside the freezers and the drinks cabinets, and served a few simple dishes as well as coffee and tea. I was impressed that it provided a cheap place for people to sit down and eat or even have a beer. We ordered plain noodles and Thai ice tea, one of each kind, one green and one brown, the tea tasted strange to us, and I who will drink and eat anything ended up having both of them.
We walked up to the main road, after Circle K, past new and half built buildings, one covered in mesh, like the buildings in Sihanoukeville. There was no building going on thankfully, presumably due to Tet. When I went out alone, I orientated myself by the big tall new buildings beyond the main road, many with neon names, some snazzy and done, some just a metal frame shell but still kind of beautiful, and beyond them, the pink sky.
On day four Anthony was getting better and I felt comfortable going for a walk and leaving him for longer. I did a few loops of our local area, past a smart looking college with inspirational quotes on boards; ‘Be someone you’d look up to,’ ‘Go wherever you want,’ ‘Question the answer,’ ‘Why ask why.’ There was a nice little coffee place nearby. I had seen it the day before but it was closing. I went for a walk down to the main road with the huge new buildings, and off down a side street, with old buildings, washing hung up, the balcony and rooftops caged in. I went down another road, looking to see what was open, everything still closed, except the same little coffee place from the back. This was day four, Saturday, Tet started on Tue, and aside from Circle K this was the only one, and this the only proper coffee cafe.
My coffee came in a dear little brown earthenware cup and saucer with a metal percolator on top- a metal ‘saucer’ on top of the cup, on top of that a metal cup with a lid, perfect to draw, if I could draw. It dripped out one drop at a time, an exercise in patience. Coffee with sugar, the tiny coffee cold by the time it had gone through but still nice. They also gave me a glass of water, it was a hot day and I drank half before I remembered I shouldn’t drink the water and spat the last mouthful back discreetly. I sat outside, the garden area had a brown wooden fence, brown tables and chairs. Each table had a big square umbrella sunshade, much bigger than the table and chairs, that would really cover everyone even with seats spread out. I saw a white butterfly, red flags and crazy wires. A thread from my black scarf got caught on my bracelet and I made it into an imperfect bracelet, finger knitting, one loose end, mis-tied. I asked if they had cake. No. We have fruit. Fruit salad? No, just fruit. No then. They came back, we can do fruit salad, fifteen mins. I shouldn’t have complicated it, but I had fruit at home and imagined them just bringing fruit, but then of course it would have been prepared? Control freak… Or not; they brought me chopped fruit covered in mayonnaise, I ate it all. When I told Anthony later he said, ‘You ate it?’! ‘Of course,’ I said, ‘I just thought of Waldorf salad. Afterwards they asked me, we have never made fruit salad before, was it okay? Usually I would just say yes, but then I thought what if another Westerner came and asked for fruit salad and got that, so I said, it was very nice, but for Westerners, it’s okay to do it without sauce, just fruit. Which may well have been what they would have given me had I said nothing… probably everyone was more confused by the end.
Later the same day we went out together to see if anywhere else was open, or if not to go to Circle K for noodles, or my place for coffee and fruit salad. A restaurant/cafe looked like it might be opening, there was a super cute puppy poking through the fence, and a man in the garden. We used the translate app on the phone to ask if it was open later, No, he said. A Vietnamese family walked past, using sign language, empty hands, we said to each other nowhere open, ‘Coffee?’ They asked. ‘Yes, anything,’ I said. They beckoned to us to follow. We just followed them and went where they showed us. We followed them all the way around the block again, them looking around and showing us which way, past bushes and plants in wide shallow stone pots on the pavement, past a woman’s garden with bonsai and lily pads, and coriander, the smell delicious. They took us to somewhere we hadn’t noticed but had probably walked past. We said thank you, and went in.
A woman greeted us warmly and said she could make us noodles, which were served nicely in a white bowl on a big white plate. Beauty in simplicity; my coffee earlier with its tiny apparatus on top of the tiny cup, and the necessary patience. The instant noodles made beautiful with coriander; beside the white bowl a little leaf green oval dish with two pieces of lime to squeeze. Chilli sauce, chop sticks, a spoon, and coffee and tea. The glow from the people’s kindness who had taken us there and the friendliness of the woman, and the relief of Anthony getting better. We made a list of all the Netflix shows we watched on the trip and tried to remember where we were when we watched them; some powerful place links such as watching Wild Wild Country (about Osho) in Kerala then coming across Oshos guesthouse, some we struggled to remember where we were when we saw them, we stayed in so many places… Link to blog about everywhere we stayed on the year long trip. Link to Everything we watched on Netflix blog
I wished I’d done better- done better shopping, gone out alone more, gone to the ATM by myself, done all the booking, been more capable, made decisions, not leant on Anthony at all, been in total charge when he was ill- but I didn’t, my mind disintegrating under stress plus not used to it. But as they say in AA, all you can do is ‘Do the next right thing.’
Thank you very much for reading
About the author
Sold house, left career, gave away almost everything else. With husband went travelling for a year, mostly in India. Here are my India highlights. Now back in the UK, living on a narrowboat, and writing a book about the trip, a spiritual/travel memoir, extracts from which appear regularly on this blog.