Vietnam, in my family’s footsteps

The night is short on this train taking us from Nanning to Hanoi. Repeated exits at border posts with our luggage, whistles blowing, waiting… A mix of excitement, curiosity and apprehension for me. How many times have I imagined this trip to Vietnam? To walk in my family’s footsteps…

The most striking thing when you cross over to Vietnam from China is the omnipresence of Westerners. We bid farewell to our isolation with slight regret. We hear English being spoken everywhere, and we go back to our good old habits of aimless surfing on social networks, drinking our coffee with half a baguette topped with jam for breakfast …

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Hanoi, where my grandfather Léon was born, is a small, pleasant town. There are pretty places here, colonial buildings, streets lined with trees, French cafés, youngsters playing badminton on the pavements… We feel transported into old school Vietnam, with its tuk-tuks, its beautiful cathedral, its swarms of scooters that make pedestrians’ lives hard, the effervescence of its 36 corporations neighbourhood…

To get to Lao Cai up north, I try out a night bus for the first time, but in broad daylight. It’s quite funny lying down in a bed at midday with Vietnamese people sitting underneath you.

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We hop on a motorbike to discover our first terraced rice fields. Decked out in our fluorescent windbreakers, we drive down winding roads, roam around Can Cau’s out of the way market, in the middle of buffalos, floral Hmongs and their superb colours… We devour incredibly fragrant Pho soups cooked in somewhat shady hygiene conditions… Not too far off, a couple of miles away, lies Bac Ha. We try corn liquor shots. The men next to us are completely drunk and stumbling all over the place. Animals are bawling, we shut our eyes; their living conditions and treatment upset us.

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Early in the morning, and after having caught a man red-handed, one hand in Cécile’s bag, we take the bus to Sapa, a noisy little town slightly higher up. The journey hits our stomachs hard. We go round, and round. I discreetly take a plastic bag out, just in case, and swallow a lot of saliva during the last few miles. A bit of hiking, a bit of motorbike, and there we are crossing lost Black Hmong villages in the middle of yet again incredible rice fields. It’s hilly, there are huts, people living in total darkness, dishevelled children alone on the side of the road, pigs yelling… We head home each night in the midst of intense fog, with those “hellos” resonating in our heads and those sincere smiles. It’s a drastic change from the attitude we’ve been getting from Vietnamese people, who barely look at us with their haughty and unpleasant attitude…

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We’re now at Halong Bay, which my father has so often told me about. There are mountains of all shapes and sizes and floating villages. We even see schools. We stop at a beach. Have a dip. Monkeys… It’s crazy, I really didn’t imagine this place like this. On the island of Cat Ba nearby, we overlook an expansive forest and imagine ourselves transported to the Amazon… On the way back, two men in tank tops are taking out a dog’s intestines.

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We hit the road South. First stop: Tam Coc, or the inland Halong Bay. It’s absolutely breathtaking. The mountains are reflected in the rice fields. Green, green everywhere! Vietnamese people wearing pointy hats cultivate the land. It’s peaceful, there are temples, cows with a divine look to them. We’re truly in the world we had imagined. A bit of biking, a bit of hiking… Dogs guard the fields and show us their fangs. We come face to face with an army of them, it’s quite frightening… As for the sky, it’s still grey and gloomy. We’ve barely seen the sun these last few weeks, it’s getting quite depressing.

A seventeen hour bus ride later, Hoi An! There are lanterns everywhere! A thousand colours… And sun, at last! Despite the crowds of tourists, we enjoy strolling through the streets and the docks lined with colourful colonial buildings. Life is extremely relaxed here. The cafés and restaurants are tastefully decorated and we’re seduced by a good glass of wine… Vietnamese food is exquisite and we gorge ourselves on dozens of harmoniously spiced dishes for next to nothing… I notice the moon crescent up in the sky one night, and realise it’s horizontal. It’s crazy, we really are on the other side of the world. It looks like a massive grin!

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Some more cycling, we have a swim in the sea, we relax. Our days become slower, our main activities consist in watching the kids climbing the coconut trees in order to pick their fruits, reading books, helping a fisherman… As we head back under the setting sun, we sometimes take a shortcut through the rice fields and face clouds of mosquitoes. One day, I pedalled with my mouth slightly open, and I swallowed one… Yum, yum!

We land at Saigon airport (OCMV) in the overwhelming heat. It’s weird to be here. My father, and nearly all my family, fled the country to France during the 60’s. We search for my father’s house, in vain. Nothing left. Replaced by a luxurious hotel. Sadness overcomes me; they destroyed a part of my family history. We do find some addresses of cafés he gave us though, and his school. We enter the schoolyard. Another twinge of sadness. We have lunch with his only half-brother who stayed there. A bowl of soup in front of him, and with tears in his eyes, he recounts the family’s history with a lot of nostalgia.

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We then visit the war museum, with its photos and stories, all so profoundly atrocious. We feel the weight of History. How could a country ever know such tragedy?! In the streets of the backpacking district, disabled Vietnamese people, disabled Americans still smoking their cigarettes in memory of bygone days, loud music, loud-mouthed Westerners, hookers, young girls with old bulging men, fire-eaters… It looks like the gates to hell.

The day before we leave for the Mekong delta, we do a little sport session in a park. One, two! One, two! And again… Kids copy our every move; it’s funny… We rest and watch the people live their lives, play badminton, volleyball, do martial arts, sing, laugh. It feels good to see such things. This bus is rocking me to sleep; I’m exhausted. Every time I open my eyes I’m on a bridge, crossing a different part of the river… It’s everywhere! Its channels spreading out like tentacles. It looks like its very own country. Brown water, thick and milky, soaks up everything. Invades everywhere.

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And tropical orchards, floating markets, also children of the jungle as they have been nicknamed. Here, the houses are on stilts. We’re basically in the bush! The landscapes resemble those of Africa, but also the tropics. The roads are orange. And there’s that mangrove, so beautiful yet so frightening. Rats and snakes on the menu… People with unbeknown physiques. That skin colour, so dark. Cambodia is a cable’s length from here. We could apparently get there in a few steps. Tomorrow, we will go down the Mekong by boat, and, if all goes to plan, have a beer in front of the setting sun in Phnom Penh.


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Valentin Porcher
Valentin Porcher
Artistic director at OLOW Trademark

Site web : www.olow.fr