When I travelled through Vietnam late last year, the honesty of the place seemed to be a constant.
Be it in the people’s faces, the city streets or even the food that we ate, everything seemed to run with the same ‘no bullshit’ attitude. I often feel this is lost in the image-obsessed bubble of my home town, and it's something I seek to express in my writing.
Long Hai was far from a ‘literary city’ in the traditional sense, and far from what we expected it to be. It was dirty and lonely, but unabashedly honest.
The taxi driver slept, bare feet hanging out the open window as the humid, threatening air licked at his toes.
With only two nights left before returning to Melbourne, my partner and I decided to book somewhere ‘beachy’ and relaxing. We hoped for a hidden gem, somewhere with white sand and blue water where no one spoke English. The ‘real’ Vietnam.
The internet led us to a place called Long Hai, a small fishing village in the south of the country. An apparent oasis where tourists were sparse, and locals went to escape in the warmer months.
Although we were travelling in the low season, the weather was still cooperative and if nothing else it would mean a quieter, even more relaxing experience. We booked two nights in a luxurious-looking hotel. Pictures showed chocolates on the pillows, a pool, air conditioning.
At the halfway mark during the uncomfortable journey from Ho Chi Minh City in a minivan with no air con and too many passengers, we stopped at a petrol station. The sliding doors flew open and women with babies strapped to their chest leaned into the van. They waved sweets and dried fruit at us, pleading.
The driver took his seat and we were off again. Sweat glued my body to the seat. The next time we stopped we had reached the region of Vung Tau, a short taxi ride away from our destination. My eyes met the driver’s in the rear vision mirror.
‘You,’ he said with a nod, lighting up a cigarette in the front seat.
We were the only guests in the hotel. An eerie sense of quiet swept over the town as I looked out over it from our narrow fifth-floor balcony. To my right, the unkempt pool backed on to an open field where cows roamed around piles of wood and other scraps that appear to have once been something useful. When we went to bed, condensation from the air conditioner dripped onto my pillow.
We walked down the street, past rows of locked up houses and street cafes. At a different time of year, these places would be bustling with locals on tiny plastic stools, chatting over the sounds and smells of crackling saucepans. Those were the kinds of scenes we were so familiar with from our time in the lively centre of the country.
Cutting through alleyways, we found our way to the beach front. The pictures had boasted a sandy strip dotted with beach huts, chairs and umbrellas. We walked through the tiki style beach bar, weaving between rolled up umbrellas, stacks of chairs and piles of deconstructed beach huts in the huge space that would normally house hungry and thirsty beach-goers.
We walked barefoot along the shore in some sad attempt to emulate our expectations. Our only company were tiny crabs darting across the compacted sand beneath our feet. Light rain began to fall and the ocean looked cruel and uninviting, despite the warm air.
Suddenly a man came tearing toward us on the sand. He pedalled hard on his push bike, with techno pumping from a tiny radio clipped to the handlebars, cigarette dangling from a crease in his mouth. He was the first person we’d seen since leaving the irritable teenage receptionist back at the hotel.
He rode straight past us without a glance. Not even my pathetic attempt at a wave caught his attention.
Not only did I feel invisible in this town, I felt uneasy, lonely. I felt imposing, as if I had walked in on Long Hai standing naked in the bathroom after a shower. I wanted to see the ‘real’ Vietnam, but wasn’t sure I deserved it.
At last we came across a restaurant with its doors open. No one was around, but we went inside anyway. Hushed voices drifted through from the back room and a lady peered around the corner. Through sign language, she managed to communicate that she would not cook us anything to eat. She pointed at the drinks menu.
We ordered two beers and drank them in silence. I felt embarrassed for the intrusion; I should have just left her alone to continue doing stocktake in the closed up shop next door.
Outside, the rough grey sea was in battle with a handful of young fisherman. Pants rolled up to their knees, they watched the ocean floor with buckets ready. When they filled up their buckets with crabs they ran back and forth to the shore to offload. As they ran past us, each would glance into the restaurant with an expression that asked what we were doing there. We talked about leaving that night.
Walking home, the only sounds were deep, hacking coughs from behind fences and the distressed crow of caged roosters. Down one street, a group of old men sat on the footpath. They had leathery faces, with wide smiles and cracked lips, the type that could balance a cigarette while talking. One was cleaning blood off the red-gold feathers of his rooster.
I made notes in my head about the colour of the sky, the kitchen smells. I tried to concentrate on the beauty in the round faces of three school boys who lingered behind us on their bikes, repeating the word ‘Hello’ and how their eyes lit up when we said it back to them. We caught a bus back to Ho Chi Minh the next day.
I’ve never felt such an overwhelming need to write about a place more than Long Hai. A need so overwhelming that all I could do at the time was take photos, and type hurried, disjointed phrases in my phone before the details slipped away.
Long Hai was a contradiction. It was not aesthetically pleasing, yet so beautiful. It was unwelcoming, but wholly alluring. It was Vietnam behind closed doors.
Those fleeting moments sinking into the tacky Vegas style pool at sunset looking up at a desolate sky were some of strangest, loneliest and best I’ve ever had.
Adriana Barro is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. Interested in online culture and food related conversation, she blogs at www.adrianaclaire.wordpress.com
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.