The Annual Phong Nha Acoustic Night
So I got a gig playing music every night. About a week ago I was sitting on the couch here at Phong Nha Farmstay noodling around on the violin. Stewart, a fellow guest, walked past.
“Hey, I have a guitar upstairs.”
“Cool, bring it down, we’ll have a jam,” I answered.
Ben, the Australian owner of Phong Nha Farmstay was standing nearby. “You guys should play inside for everyone,” he piped up. These words had once meant terror, but time and practice have changed their meaning to fun.
We’d only just met, so we improvised. The equivalent of musical improvisation in, let’s say, the business world, would be if someone asked you to give a critical board presentation but refused to tell you the topic until you were actually standing between the screen and the board members. If you falter or fidget, members of the board will begin chatting, wander off to the drinks cabinet and generally just ignore you. So I have to give myself a pat on the back for giving it a shot.
Ben loved it. Ben’s the type of guy you’d like to have on your side in a fist-fight. A strapping, no-nonsense, congenial, jeep-driving khaki-wearing Australian man whose time in war-hardened North Vietnam seems to have sharpened his senses for opportunity, even if it means beating a path through the jungle to get there. Phong Nha Farmstay is brick-and-mortar proof of it. When the jam was over, he suggested that we do the same the next night, and we did. The next night, Stewart left to go back to Hue. So I just carried on alone the next evening. And the next.
Then it was my turn to leave Phong Nha and carry on with the plan of getting to Phnom Penh on my bicycle, Giant. But, as they say, life’s what happens when you’re making other plans. The night before, as I was doing the hardest thing about travel (saying goodbye to everyone), Ben took me aside and told me he’d like to make a deal on account of the fact that I’d provided some good times in his quiet, wet season.
So, here I am, until the end of September. We’ve got a great PA system overlooking fields where water buffalo roam. I’m playing a 90-minute set in the evenings, mostly covers (Oasis, Ben Harper, Beatles, etc). I’ve also managed to perform my violin dance show Pravda23 to a backing track. Along with local dude Hai, and German classical guitarist Joel, we played a wildlife awareness charity show to 120 people last Friday night in town. Technically, and joyfully, a professional.
I just feel really thankful that this opportunity has presented itself. My days involve sourcing new songs and lyrics, as well as practicing guitar and violin and teaching one of the local lads guitar. More than the time and the payment, I now have the confidence that one person in the world sees the value of what I’m doing, and the feeling of being professional, albeit if only for a few bars of the score.
So I’m not wasting a minute more of this fantastic time of my life, unexpectedly finding myself being a professional performing artist – on a farm in Vietnam!
I make and compile all sorts of music while on the trot. Have a looksee.
I met a few brave souls who joined Joel and I for a shaker jam at Phong Nha Farmstay in North Central Vietnam!
“The Chinese are coming! Head for the caves!” someone screams. We all burst into hysterical laughter. Hoards of swooping Chinese flock out of the sky, the dull sustained whoooooooshing of their 8-foot wings frighteningly audible just yards overhead. We panic and sprint like hunted rabbits into the hills. One of them can suddenly breathe fire, and the helpless laughter at the table redoubles.
It’s a stoner fantasy. Nobody remembers how it started but Ceri, Clay and I are liberally peppering it with fresh nonsense on the fly. There isn’t much else going on in the tourist village of Mai Chau tonight. There was traditional dancing last night. Kinda interesting. Kinda boring. Clay’s local motorcycle tour business means he sees it to pretty much to death, Ceri is just tagging along for a weekend out of her Hanoi job monotony, and I get the feeling all three of us are glad to spend an evening being invaded by the Chinese.
Earlier, I’d been lying on the filthy couch watching the flies when I heard an expensive rrrrrkkkkkk crunch. Clay had announced his arrival in the 14-seater tour van by reversing half over one of the motorcycles parked outside. Another few inches would have mean a domino effect of motorcycles, then bicycles, tragically ending with the water cooler.
Ceri’s job in communications for WWF in Hanoi means she’s partly responsible for certain perceptions of the organization. It’s a lot of responsibility for a 22-year-old. First off, it’s not the World Wrestling Federation, it’s the World Wildlife Fund (and No, we don’t facilitate panda cage fighting, har har). Perhaps in the country that made Agent Orange famous, we can think of a slogan that’s a little less aggressive than “Kill the trade that kills the rhino”. That kinda thing. I sensed that she spends a large amount of time dealing with woeful ignorance in a nation where dog and endangered monkey are still on the menu.
The next morning we looted the parking area for the most functional motorbikes and tore out of the narrow road running between wooden stilt houses and impossibly green rice paddies, through the Shire-like backdrop of the idyllic valley of Mai Chau. The road turned to gravel and bent its crooked way through towering bamboo forest and sleepy village clusters, the faces of the local ghosts never failing to light up and shout hello’s over the mosquito bizzzzzz of the scooters.
We reached the edge of the surreal turquoise lake and marvelled at the scale of it; a lake so large that an island the size of a theme park jutted from the center. But a solitary house stood on its banks, isolated from the surrounding mainland by a 30-minute trip in an outboard motorboat. Clay knew the area well, and we pulled up at the house of a local boatman. As we cut the engines, a great silence flooded in; the kind you haven’t heard in so long that you forgot that you’ve been searching for it.
The boatman ferried us out for a swim under the clear, blue tropical sky. The lush emerald hillscapes dragged primary forest ivy trails up to a 40 degree horizon. Ceri floated on her back on a neon orange life-saver, staring at the sky. Clay was underwater somewhere. We are all strange shapes in a Dali painting, co-creators of this immersive, ridiculous fantasy, the impossible vividness of it all. We were Teletubbies in a faraway construct. The boat just a banana in a bathtub.
New words always
Ant – rushed traveler, fitting it all in, obsessed with stamps and flags
Brostel – brothel hostel
Casino clowns – you are one when you lurk in a casino playing small bets and drinking for free
Chillage in the village – (Asia cycling) relaxing somewhere agrarian
Ghost – (Asia cycling) roadside passer-by or random traveler you’re never gonna see again
Hill Trust – (Asia cycling) the faith that this uphill bend in the mountain pass is the last
Muto – a highly important achievement
Moto-gawker – (Asia cycling) motorcyclist who ignores the highway ahead for a full 60 seconds to crane their neck and stare at you cycling as they pass
Roadside – small shop, source of hot water, flat sodas and stale biscuits and home to a family of 3256 people
The diminishing margin of hello-ity – effect produced by saying hello 400 times a day
Translating – (while speaking to a local) pointing, miming, doing anything to get the message across (except speak Vietnamese)
Two cents – someone more clever’s correction of your foreign exchange estimates; “It’s more like four thousand one hundred and fifty-seven riel to the dollar.”
Wi-Five – high five across a street or large room
Humidity problems in Asia almost cause a loss of face.
The author’s guilty genius
I feel that omitting certain details about this magnificent trip would be insincere. As if I’m pawning off my travels as something greater than that which they would be if I was cycling the whole distance. I am not.
“I’m going from Hanoi to Jakarta overland, on a bike.”
“I’m skipping the 1500kms in Thailand by flight, and I may also use public transport to save time. Yeah, and possibly dismounting altogether halfway.”
But all these small details often get lost in the flow of conversation, so I just avoid them unless someone asks. For the record: I’m cheating.
Beach islands are kinda boring – Fire the clock-keepers – Hanoi vehicle suicide.
I met three travellers on Quan Lam island, one called Gayelle and the other two gay. The boys told a funny story about being accosted by desperate sex-trade junkies in the Hanoi night, getting their balls grabbed. “Barking up the wrong tree, love!”
I spent the next morning in the windbreak of a semi-constructed beach house practicing violin, mostly blues licks in A pentatonic minor, down in first position and up on 3rd.
Now that I’m maturing like a fine whiskey, I find more comfort in DIY travel. But I guess I still default to wanting a certain Goldilocks zone of comfort. A beach with no karaoke bars would be ideal, but only if the beer’s iced. I’d like no hassles from touts, but if there’s nobody around to share it with, it falls a little flat. These preconceptions of the perfect travel experience are, I guess, what keep my mind off the inevitable loneliness of solo travel without an iPhone.
I did feel marginally hated in the main street of Quan Lam town. While some smile, others just have a chagrin clearly born of disenfranchisement. Families and groups of motorcycle youths sit on the worn steps of their various establishments, offering glances. But I met the sweetest group of girls under a beach shelter while waiting for the cloudbreak. We took photos and went for lunch. I sang some Bruno Mars for them. I’ve learned a way with teenage girls through spending two years teaching them in Seoul, a sense of innocence and humor. Oh Lord. I’ve become a teenage girl.
Vietnam is incorrectly timezoned. At 5.30am, the sun is already high in the sky. It’s bizarre. So it was no problem catching the 7am boat back to Cai Rong after a final evening in an oppressively hot room with dormant fans. From there I cycled 50kms to Bai Chai, where I boarded the bus for Hanoi. The driver helped me detach the front wheel in order to fit it in the cargo. I sat in front of a couple from Seapoint, but we didn’t talk much. I plucked the violin and watched a Jackie Chan movie.
Driving cars on highways: the burden of responsibility falls on everyone else. As a Vietnamese driver, you honk once and assume that everyone else has already noticed on your behalf. Kindly pull out into the chaotically busy road from a hidden side-street and enter the pandemonium as if everyone within 2kms has heard you and expects your sudden arrival. For a cyclist caught in the aorta, the result is a pure, unfiltered cacophony reaching symphonic levels of anxiety and irritation.
Being ‘the older backpacker’
Unfortunately, I speak with no auhority on leaving behind the vanity of my gorgeous twenties. Now 30, and evidently one of the senior citizens of the bustling Hanoi Backpackers, I look in the toothpaste-sprinkled mirror and I still see the sexy fall of my golden hair and the bronze shade of my sun-kissed torso. My supposed handsomeness. The past. These are the things I notice, again and again, like an addicted gambler hoping that it all adds up to something eventually.
The herenow is my second evening in Hanoi. Today has been a foothunt for the bicycle that will carry me south to Ho Chi Minh city. Hanoi backpackers is a typical blend of mainly WASPs. We’re a pleasant bunch. We kinda do take our luxuries for granted though. I feel a great relief I’ve never before experienced while on the road like this: a complete disregard for fitting in.
I’m enjoying the constant playlist of microevents since my arrival. The Aussie 18-year old in Guangzou who high-fived me when I told her I was also Year of the Dog. The rabid airport pickup. The midnight tour of the 5-storey backpacker premises in the knuckle of the charmingly decrepit Old Quarter. The flawlessly made up and sophisticated 23-year-old student at the bar who’s in the process of saving Africa.
As I write, confusion and disorientation is steadily melting into a warm joy I haven’t experienced in years. It’s pure love for all these whipper-snappers. And freedom! During my trip to the Philippines last August, I pre-booked my dive course and lacked the freedom to leave the disgustingly over-everythinged town of Sabang. I’ve also road-tripped in between, but nobody’s home country can conjure the truly exotic. This really is becoming the footloose moment of the past 5 years.
But it’s too soon to say anything. Tomorrow I continue the hunt the supplies. Inspired writing to follow, you vicarious vampires. The ease of time to spill…