Saturday, 14th Febuary
Gyms are beginning to “happen” in Vietnam. Some young people here go to them. But most people here can’t afford them and probably wouldn’t dream of going. It’s kind of like Ireland in the early 90s. We knew gyms existed. Like we knew bottled water existed. But we couldn’t imagine why anyone would pay for either of these. In Vietnam, organised exercise is usually seen as something for the elderly. Every morning, early in the morning, the parks of Vietnam fill with elderly people doing stretches, aerobics and tai chi. If you walk down the street anywhere in Saigon it’s not unusual to see a seventy-year-old man doing lunges or stretching his arms up and grabbing onto a balcony above him. Loss of flexibility would appear to be the main preoccupation of the elderly exercisers of Vietnam, who don’t seem to be trying to lose weight or build muscle. Most of the exercises seem to be built around twisting and swinging their body and limbs around, like when a three-year-old child “dances”.
A friend was coming to visit me for my Tet (Vietnamese New Year) holidays, and while I was waiting for her at the airport, I snaffled up a good seat. My friend, let’s call her Manzana, told me that she would be a long time waiting for her visa after she got off the plane, which was true. She was almost two hours waiting, which meant I was waiting for two hours outside. I love the waiting area at Ho Chi Minh City Airport. When you land, you walk through customs and instead of arriving out into a large hall, you arrive outdoors, where there are two measly rows of seats and about 800 Vietnamese people waiting. I love it because it feels so wonderfully foreign. Instead of the tiled sterility where you meet your loved ones at a European airport, you walk out into a wall of steaming humidity, face into a noisy crowd of excited Vietnamese people, with a backdrop of a line of tall palm trees and the sound of motorbikes beeping in the background. Every time I’m there, my blood runs faster with excitement at the foreignness of it all.
Anyway, as I say, there are only two rows of seats and hundreds of people and I was waiting for two hours. I was delighted to find a seat with a good view of the doors from which the passengers emerged. There was only one drawback to the seat. For the entire two hours I was sitting there, an old man was sitting next to me. And for those whole two hours, he kept standing up and doing his exercises. There was a good 45 minutes of him swinging his arms between my face and the book I was reading. And another good 45 minutes of him rotating at the waist. like a crazed Jack-in-the-box with an overly flaccid spring. And no one but me stared at this manic activity. Why would anyone stare? Rotating is just what old folks do here.
Once my friend came out, we went to get a taxi. A man came up to us showing his ID, and led us to his car. It wasn’t a taxi. We got in anyway. He had ID. What could possibly go wrong? He drove as far as the barriers at the exit of the airport car park and then turned to us and asked for 28 dollars. Twenty-eight dollars? What is this dollars business? We’re in Vietnam. I asked what the price was in dong and he said 700,000. Crazy. I had got a taxi to the airport for 120,000. There was no way were were paying 700,000. Fair play to this man, he reversed all the way back to the arrivals area and we got out and got an actual taxi, which cost substantially less.
Once Manzana was settled in her hotel, we went out to one of Saigon’s rooftop bars and plotted for the week ahead.
Sunday, 15th February
Manzana had spent time in Ho Chi Minh CIty before and didn’t need to see the main sights, so we set out for District 5, Saigon’s chinatown, which neither of us had seen before. The Chinese herbalists’ shops look and smell wonderfully exotic, but you can’t help wondering if they’re responsible for grinding up endangered tigers and rhinos, so I tried not to like the smells too much.
We also went to see four different pagodas. Pagoda is the English name for Vietnamese buddhist places of worship, because the French colonists couldn’t tell the difference between actual pagodas and buddhist temples and the imperialist ignoracnce stuck. Anyway, they’re amazing. They’re way better than churches for a number of reasons: 1. They are a riot of colours, especially bold reds and yellows. 2. People leave offerings in front of altars that can include cans of Pepsi and packets of Ritz crackers. I don’t know what the spirits do with them, but branded altars appeal to me. 3. They have life size plaster statues of horses. 4. One of the pagodas is “guarded” by actual living turtles. 5. Some of them have water features, with little streams and little model houses and people and buddhas and goldfish swimming around. 6. Seriously, so many bright colours. 7. The pictures of baddies are hilarious, giant lactating blue men with snakes for toes. 8. Some representations of buddhas and gods and honoured ancestors look like The Simpsons. 9. So much gold. 10. Incense coils: lots and lots of incense in spirals hanging above your head. 11. There’s often an old lady eating noodles in the corner. 12. Unlike a Christian church, everyone worships in their own way – there are no real areas to gather and have a religious service. You just pop in, put a banana or a bottle of 7Up in front of an altar, light a stick of incense, bow a few times and go on your way, without a single word from a trendy priest about “plugging into Jesus” or an embarrassing moment when you’re not sure whether you’re meant to kneel or sit at this bit of Mass.
That evening, we went to a posh Vietnamese restaurant in the courtyard of an old opium refinery. I ordered beef with lemongrass. Much to my surprise when the waiter appeared, he put the plate in front of me and started putting on surgical gloves. Oh my. This was a level of service I wasn’t expecting. Unfortunately (or fortunately) it was my food he was about to touch, and he demonstrated rolling my beef in salad leaves and rice paper. Playing with your food is fun!
Walking around the centre of Saigon isn’t fun at the moment. Half the centre is being dug up to build a new metro system, which the city of 4 million motorbikes desperately needs. As we walked past a building site that evening, we passed two young men working barefoot. Why would you bother with shoes on a building site? I’m guessing helmets and hi-vis gear are still a few years away. I find health and safety here terrifying. When you plug things in at work, sparks sometimes fly out of the socket at you, and when men come to clean the windows of the eight-storey building where I work, they scamper barefoot up these skinny, flimsy bamboo ladders and put my heart crossways.
Monday, 16th February
Monday was my last day at work before Tet. I hurried home afterwards, packed and got a taxi to the airport. Manzana and I were spending the next few days touring around central Vietnam. The airport was crazy. Tet is a mental time of year in Vietnam. Everyone goes home to their family. It’s like Christmas in Ireland, but even more so. I queued up to check in, and it was absolutely nuts. I’ve been to places where people are bad at queueing, like Russia and West Kerry, but this was nothing like I’d seen before. Four queues would become one queue, which would then split into three queues. Old ladies would signal to you to overtake them, while they looked for their children, whole families would barge past you. People with unlikely luggage, squash rackets, trombones, snooker cues and the like, would shove you out of their way. When you eventually made it to the check-in desk, you would discover that the number of queues bore no relationship to the number of desks, and also that you didn’t just go to the desk one at a time. Three or four groups of people would all march up to the desk together, slap their passports on the counter and the flight attendant would pick one at random to start with. She might do two or three at once, regardless of the fact that you were all going to different locations.
What with all the Tet madness, our flight (to Danang) changed its departure time twice and its gate once. We were also allocated different seats from the ones we’d pre-booked, but that was OK. We had made it through the airport madness, sailing through security. I walked through the scanner without taking off my belt and no one noticed. The man looking at the screen while our bags went through the scanner was faced the opposite direction from the screen as our bags went through, having a chat with his colleague. I don’t think it would have been particularly difficult to get a gun on board.
We boarded the plane, walking under the wing to get to the back door. In Ireland, you’re not allowed to walk under the wing of a plane. I presume whatever makes it dangerous in Ireland means that it’s also dangerous in Vietnam, and the wing could have burned us all alive or something, but it turned out alright. Both Manzana and myself survived the underwing walk.
We boarded and took our seats. The pilot, who was British, made an announcement over the crackly intercom and one of the passengers, also British, excitedly approached one of the flight attendants, “Is the pilot’s name Owen?” he asked the attendant in one of the most excited voices I’ve ever heard. Unfortunately, more people boarding obscured the rest of the conversation, but I like to think that two long-lost English friends were re-united emotionally on a JetStar Pacific flight on a hot Vietnamese February evening.
A lot of the Vietnamese people on the plane had bunches of flowers as part of their hand luggage. It would never occur to me to carry flowers on a plane. In fact, if I were given a bunch of flowers and was due to fly within the next 24 hours, I would bemoan how wasteful the flowers were as I would have to get rid of them before flying. Not so the Vietnamese. The flowers were carefully placed in the overhead compartments and seemed to survive fine. As well as this, Vietnamese people seem to often pack their luggage in boxes rather than suitcases and the baggage carousel when we landed had as many boxes on it as suitcases. Packing had never struck me as a cultural phenomenon before. Shows how ignorant I am.
We arrived in Danang not expecting much. I knew it was Vietnam’s third city, but it never gets much of a write-up in the guidebooks and I had thought of it as a businesslike industrial place. We were only staying there for a night. Our arrival at the hotel was not encouraging. When I opened my bedroom door, the first thing I noticed was the giant bottle of insect-killing spray on the dressing table for my convenience. There was a also a price list of everything in the room prominently displayed, so you knew just how much you’d be charged if you broke the kettle or stole a pillow case.
It was late, but we decided to go out for dinner, having only had a small meal in the airport, a sandwich of sorts that tasted of Calvita processed cheese and sticky chilli sauce. We walked down to the riverfront. And I realised I love Danang. It has a really young lively atmosphere. The riverfront had lots of marble statues (Central Vietnam has a big marble industry, who knew?) and quirky light fixtures and trendy restaurants and pubs. Don’t get me wrong. Danang is still Vietnam, motorbikes beeped constantly (a smaller number of motorbikes can mean a greater number of beeps in Vietnam; I think the fact that they’re less expected means that they feel the need to warn you more often.) There are still lots of rats. In fact, I think I saw more rats in my day in Danang than on any other day since I’ve arrived in Vietnam. And there are still heaps of rubbish piled on the side of the street. But all that said, it’s still kind of enchanting. Most of Vietnam goes to bed early, but we found a fast food restaurant open after 11 and then we strolled down the riverfront to the Dragon Bridge (which is much more impressive than Ljubljana’s bridge which has the same name). It was between midnight and 1:00 and we came across the flower delivery men. Flowers, especially yellow ones, are a BIG part of Tet, and flower sellers were lining up to buy from the delivery men. As we went further along the street, there were countless street traders, sitting in the dark, armed with piles of yellow (and a few pink) flowers to sell. It was like getting back stage at a musical. I felt like we were lucky intruders, surrounded by raw magic that wasn’t quite ready for the public.
Danang rocks. By the end of the night, I had planned how I could set up a teacher training centre there and work in Danang on a regular basis.
Tuesday, 17th February
Breakfast in the hotel was the usual Vietnamese choice of various noodle soups or omelettes. I have had the most typical spicy beef noodle soup more than once already, so I decided to be adventurous and get the spicy chicken peanut noodle soup. I was expecting something like a chicken satay. That’s not what I got. I got a nice nutty chicken broth with noodles. Unfortunately, everything else floating in the mixture was completely unidentifiable and disturbingly crunchy, and I bit down on a number of chicken bones thinking they were peanuts. I also spat out some peanuts thinking they were bones. I was lucky to keep a full set of teeth.
The hotel had a large kumquat tree in reception in a pot. In the South of Vietnam, where Ho Chi Minh City is, the Tet tree is usually one with lots of yellow flowers. You see real ones, but generally they’re real branches with fake yellow flowers attached. In Central Vietnam, the holiday tree is usually a kumquat tree, with fresh kumquats actually growing from it. I can only imagine how insane Ireland would be if there was food growing from the branches of Christmas trees. They’d all be naked by December 18th. As well as flowers or kumquats, Tet trees are decorated with little red and gold decorations, and little red envelopes of money. Besides all the Tet trees, most shops and offices have lots and lots of pots of yellow flowers outside their doors for Tet. There are flowers everywhere. I wonder where they all go after Tet. Is there some kind of pot plant graveyard that they all go to? It would need to be the size of Kildare County to accommodate all the pot plants that appear in Vietnam in February.
I’m quite proud that I can recognise a kumquat. The Vietnamese administrator who shares my office decided to start teaching me about tropical fruit a few weeks ago. On my first day at work here, when I first arrived back in October, I went to McDonalds. Of course I did. I was absolutely terrified of the street food. And my first adventure with “world famous” Vietnamese street food turned out to be an utter disaster. I accidentally got a pile of liver and a bowl of rice in cabbage juice. Bleurgh. Anyway, I’ve been working there for four months, and my administrator thinks I go to McDonalds every day, even though I’ve only gone about 4 times in total, and only once at lunchtime, so he’s wrong, but he has taken it upon himself to supply me with vitamins. I have now had jackfruit and pomelo and coconut and mangosteen and kumquat. I’m basically the Stephen Hawking of tropical fruit. (Note: I’m not. I still walk into a supermarket and buy bananas because they’re literally the only thing I recognise and I’m afraid if I buy something unfamiliar, I might arrive home like someone coming home from a petshop with an adorable mogwai who then feeds it after midnight and discovers she or he actually has a monstrous gremlin on her or his hands.)
Anyway, we spent the morning looking at Danang’s only tourist site, a perfectly pleasant museum of Cham sculpture. At lunchtime we went for lunch in a restaurant that was literally called “The Rachel”. How couldn’t we go for lunch there? It was named after a 90s haircut after all, and I’d never before been to a restaurant named after a haircut, whatever the era. We chose dishes. I asked for something that the menu described as “Vietnamese dumplings”. The waitress told me I shouldn’t order them because Westerners don’t like them. Manzana ordered spring rolls. The waitress tried to talk her out of it, but Manzana wouldn’t back down and insisted on spring rolls. I am weaker willed and accepted the waitress’s alternative suggestion.
After lunch, it was time to go to our next destination, Hoi An. We had ordered a car through the hotel. Danang is located very close to a famous beach, so when we ordered the car, we asked if we could go to the beach on the way. They asked if we’d also like to go to a “marble village” on the way and we shrugged and said “why not?”
The taxi was an old car, without air conditioning, so we drove with all the windows open and a typhoon blowing through our hair. The beach, known to American troops during the war as China Beach, is stunningly beautiful. I’ve never felt more like a rich imperialist than when we got out of the taxi and had the driver wait for us. We walked around a bit, and while I’m not a big fan of sand, I couldn’t deny what an amazing place it is. I could happily spend a week there. While we were on the beach, the taxi driver, who looked about 17 years old, got out of the car and started playing in some boats that had been left on the beach. We went back to the car, and stood beside it, waiting for him to get back from his fun. He came up to us and opened the door for us. It hadn’t been locked. And all our luggage and passports were just sitting inside. And we’d stood outside like some kind of feeble white people who didn’t know how door handles worked waiting for our native driver to open them for us. I felt horribly privileged.
We drove through the “marble village”. The mountains in this area are made of marble, though apparently all the marble actually carved here comes from China, so as not to waste their own marble, which is both admirable and vaguely sneaky.
We had been expecting marble workshops with craftspeople and little figurines to buy. The marble village was in fact a giant showroom. Huge outdoor spaces, and no figurines, but rather full-size statues. Lady Buddhas that are twice the height of any woman I’ve seen in my life, large lions, big enough to put on the steps of your presidential palace. Huge marble gods, emperors, dragons and oxen. The driver turned to us, wanting to know if he should stop. I don’t know what he thought. Did he think that the two young Irish people, travelling from a two-star hotel to a three-star one in a taxi without air-conditioning might actually have the money to buy an eight-foot-high marble statue and ship it to another continent? He’d seen our bags, so he knew we couldn’t fit a statue in one of them. We said no.
It’s about a forty-minute drive from Danang to Hoi An and the wind picked up as we sped along the open road. The driver’s leather jacket was lying on the boot cover and the wind brought its arm to life. By the time we got to our destination, the jacket’s arm had tried it on with both me and Manzana.
We got to the hotel. It looked nice. As soon as we walked in, the young man at reception, who appeared not to speak English, handed the phone to Manzana. “For me?” she said, understandably surprised. A voice at the other end of the phone asked who she was and told her that the hotel we had booked (the one in which we were standing) was closed for building works and that a taxi would come soon and bring us to the other hotel. We were not to pay the taxi driver, no matter what he said.
Mystified, and a little suspicious, we were taxi-ed to our new hotel and were surprised to discover that it was even nearer the centre and even nicer than the one we had booked. We’d been bumped up. It was an amazing hotel, the swankiest I’ve ever stayed in. In the middle of the hotel was a swimming pool in a courtyard. At one end of the pool was a row of bar stools submerged in the water, with a poolside bar stocked with spirits of various types. Outside my bedroom was one of two large fish ponds.
The bellboy showed me into my room. It was amazing. The bathroom was tropically themed with a showerhead the size of a TescoExpress. There were towels on my bed in the shape of two loved-up swans and there were petals everywhere. My room had a computer. Imagine. There were snuggly dressing gowns and free bananas and water and a big mini bar and a balcony and all mod cons. As the bellboy was leaving, he carefully placed a teaspoon on my dressing table. I have no idea why, but the mystery added to the feeling of luxury, and I felt as intimidated and excited as little orphan Annie arriving in Daddy Warbucks’ house and singing “I think I’m gonna like it here!” (Incidentally, the 2014 version of Annie the movie changed that song so much that it was barely recognisable.)
We went for a walk into Hoi An. Hoi An (not to be confused with the capital Hanoi, which is a totally different place) was a rich port town in the 18th century, with lots of trade with the Chinese and the Japanese, lots of money and swanky houses. Then the river silted up and everyone forgot about the town for 200 years. It is preserved more or less in the same state as it was in when it was a rich cosmopolitan seaport three hundred years ago. And it is breathtaking.
There are few truly unique places in the world. Venice is one. I think Dingle is another. But those are the only two places I’ve ever been that can compare to Hoi An. It just feels special. The buildings tend to be painted a shade of custard yellow, as if that was the only shade of paint 18th century B&Q had, and this matches nicely with all the deep brown woodwork and roofing. The streets are narrow and “pedestrianized” i.e. no cars, just motorbikes, and everything is pleasingly crooked and higgledy piggledy. At some stage, someone decided it would be a good idea to string up a few lanterns and now the whole town is like a Christmas tree come to life. Coloured lanterns decorate every single street and rows of stalls stay open till late at night, selling rows and rows of enchanting lanterns. If you go to one place in Vietnam, it should probably be Hoi An.
We walked around, dazed by the loveliness of it all, stopping off for cocktails and bathing in the glittery feeling, before going for dinner in a restaurant that both Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor loved, called Morning Glory. Apparently, morning glory is a type of vegetable popular in Vietnam, and not, as I had always thought, the sensation of waking up with an erection, which declines with alarming frequency after you pass 25. This was the second last day of the Year of the Horse in Vietnam and most Vietnamese people had been off work for two days. Nothing will stop the tourists though, and Morning Glory was open for business. There was, however, a note in the menus asking us to excuse the staff who weren’t wearing their uniforms in celebration of Tet. Being a tourist is awful. Because of us, people had to do the equivalent of working at Christmas and were being allowed the “treat” of not wearing their uniforms. We still enjoyed it no end.
We did another walk around magical Hoi An before going to bed in our amazing hotel rooms. Wonderful, wonderful day!
Wednesday, 18th February
On Wednesday, we took our time getting to know Hoi An in the daylight. It’s not quite as pretty in the sun – all the lanterns and coloured lights don’t look quite as magical the morning after and it felt a little bit like someone who didn’t take their make-up off the night before and woke up with lips that were a bit too red and eyelids that were a bit too glittery. That said, I didn’t love it any less than I had. It’s still a very special place, with lovely creaky old yellow buildings, a fancy covered “Japanese” bridge, a beautiful waterfront and lots for tourists to see.
It was the last day of the Year of the Horse, and lots of businesses were closed, including lots of the tourist sites, but there was enough to keep us busy, including some incredible “Assembly Halls”, which were meeting places and religious sites for the various communities of Chinese origin in Hoi An. They were like the pagodas we had seen on Sunday, except bigger and even more colourful.
One of the assembly hall gardens had a large goat statue. As Tet is the celebration of the new year, and as this is the Year of the Goat, one of the decorations you see everywhere is a goat. There are goats EVERYWHERE. Sometimes just pictures of goats. Sometimes cuddly plush goats. Often styrofoam or plaster statues of goats painted yellow or covered in gold glitter. Some of these goats are enormous. One of the questions that plagued me for the whole of Tet, as well as the fate of the flower pots, was what happened to the goats. Do they store all the goats for the next Year of the Goat in 12 years time? Do people have twelve sets of Tet decorations in the attic? Can you imagine the fights about putting those decorations? “Put that fucking dragon back in the box, Linh Ly, you know right well it’s the Year of the Monkey.” Anyway, the reason I mention this is that the large statue of the goat in the garden of this ancient assembly hall had frighteningly enlarged testicles and I thought of little else for hours.
After walking around assembly halls for the morning, we were assembly-halled-out. There are only so many Chinese Assembly Halls you need to see in your life, and we’d done too much too fast, like a pair of rock stars who have a lifetime’s quota of cocaine in one night. We walked through a crazy busy street market, where the Vietnamese were frantically shopping for Tet dinner buying last minute lychees and pak choi. (I actually have no idea what either of those are. They may or may not have been available at this market.) We got to the river and walked along it, getting sunburnt and watching the boats along the river. Some were fishing boats and some were tourist boats – there are a hell of a lot of tourists in Hoi An. One woman caught my eye. She was in traditional Vietnamese silk pyjamas and was wearing one of the traditional conical hats, and she was rowing one of the old fashioned little fishing boats, and she made for a pretty picture against the backdrop of Hoi An. She stood up and started messing with her pyjamas. I was entirely unprepared for what happened next, as she dropped her trousers, lowered her ass of the side of the boat and had a good long pee.
We were both tired that afternoon and decided to do something relaxing. We went to a cafe and had a cocktail. The Vietnamese aren’t afraid to put lots of sprits in their cocktails. In fact, a Long Island Ice Tea has no fewer than five shots in it in Vietnam, which I’m almost sure isn’t the case in Ireland. After our cocktail it was still too early for dinner and all the tourist sites had closed and there really wasn’t much choice, so we went to another bar and ordered another cocktail. This bar had a happy hour on (all the bars in touristy areas of Vietnam have happy “hours” that seem to last between four and six hours a day) and so, we accidentally ordered two cocktails each, as it was two for the price of one. Given the amount of shots that go into a cocktail here, I’m fairly sure that that one order counted as “binge drinking”. Anyway, we relaxed and we drank. When we stood up, at about 7:00 pm, we were both kind of tipsy. We went back to our hotel to get changed for dinner, like we were Victorian gentry. As we passed the fish ponds on the way to our bedrooms, Manzana leaned over one of the ponds to show me that two of the fish had died. I had a vision of her falling into the pond and both of us appearing on “Boozed up Brits Abroad” or something along those lines.
Anyway, we made it out to dinner. A lot of restaurants were full. And those that weren’t full were closed for Tet. We eventually got a table in a restaurant by the river. This was one of many charity restaurants in Vietnam that are created to give employment and training to disadvantaged youth in Vietnam, so we could feel virtuous (but God only knows if they even pay their staff – for all I know it could all be a big scam). The poor waiting staff were run off their feet. Literally. I have never been in a restaurant where the wait staff ran so much. They ran from table to table, forgetting orders, panting, bounding up stairs, bringing the wrong thing to the wrong table. It was something to behold.
After dinner, we went for a walk around the older parts of the town. It was completely different from the night before. We had come to the last hours of the Year of the Horse and absolutely everything was closed. The lanterns were switched off and we had to walk slowly because the streets were so dark. Occasionally we would pass someone doing rituals that I assume are associated with Tet. They set up little altars at the front of their shops or houses and lit incense. Some of them also burned paper. And food offerings (to the gods? to the dead? I don’t know) were laid out too.
When we got back to the river, midnight was coming. We had sobered up and the atmosphere was electric. It was the first time since we had arrived in Hoi An that tourists were in a minority. Families of Vietnamese people lined the river, having picnics, meeting friends, drinking and chatting. There was a fun fair and a stage on the other side of the river and Manzana and I crossed over to see it.
There were lots of people, young and old, placing bets and playing various versions of throwing or shooting things at other things in order to win teddy bears. On the stage, a very young looking band were getting ready. As we went through the crowd, the Vietnamese did what they always did. The elderly, children, adults and teenagers all reached out their hands and had a good squeeze of my arms, thighs and belly. Seriously, Vietnam, get your hands off me. Once we got to the other side of the crowd, some teenagers stopped and asked, laughing, if they could have their photo taken with me. I assented and am no doubt someone’s most-favourited photo on their Facebook Tet album.
As we walked back across the bridge, to where our hotel was, I overheard two very posh English boys talking. There are certain accents that make my knees weak. Pretty much any Cork or Kerry accent is HOT, as is the Irish midlands accent and the Belfast one, and the Scottish one, as well as the French one, all Slavic ones, all Nordic ones and, possible the hottest of all, posh English accents. I don’t know why. I think it’s because it’s so wrong for an Irishman that it feels deviant and naughty and deeply erotic. Anyway, I couldn’t see these guys, but their accent was melting me. Then one of them said to the other, “You’re pretty much sorted for life now that you’ve got your A-levels.” WTF? On so many levels. How young were these guys? How did such young guys end up unsupervised in Hoi An? And LOLoLOLoLOL that they actually believed that. Yup. Finished school. Life sorted 4EVA.
At this stage it was near enough to the Year of the Goat that it was safe for us to assume that in half an hour or so there would be a countdown to midnight and a celebration of the new year. We had seen the fire services guarding a clear area beside the river and thought that there might be fireworks.
We found a spot by the river and waited. There were hundreds and hundreds of people crowded by the banks of the river. Midnight came. We looked across to the stage where the celebrations seemed to be centred. A few sparklers went off. We looked around. Nothing else happened. Everyone else seemed to be waiting too. We waited. At ten past nothing had happened. I was ready to go to bed.
Then they started. I have never seen such impressive fireworks, and I’ve seen big fireworks before. Because I had the most middle class childhood in the history of forever, in the summer of 1989, my parents took us to France for the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Those were good fireworks. But the Tet fireworks display in Hoi An was just incredible. As it was now the nineteenth of February, I had just turned 34, and never has my birth been more impressively marked than by this firework show. The fireworks just kept on coming. Booming and banging and whizzing and popping above our heads. The were falling directly at us, and I felt myself ducking so that I wouldn’t get incinerated by a falling firework. I’m fairly sure Vietnamese health and safety regulations about fireworks are about as lax as all their other heath and safety regulations. I imagined myself burning to a crisp. I also imagined someone else going on fire and me getting killed in the ensuing stampede. I got so twitchy that I found myself cursing in the most Irish way possible. There was a Vietnamese boy in front of me filming the fireworks, who no doubt picked up every word I said on film and one day, he will show the video with its soundtrack of frightened Connorisms to his children and they’ll ask “Daddy, what does sweet mother of the divine mean?” “Daddy what’s a merciful hour?” And he won’t be able to answer.
But the fireworks truly took my breath away. I think they might have been the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen that wasn’t Zac Efron. I went to bed a little deaf from twenty minutes of booms and bangs, with a crick in my neck from watching twenty minutes of non-stop fireworks directly above my head and with my heart a little bit higher from having seen something so magical in such a magical place. I ❤ Vietnam.