‘So what did you come looking for in Vietnam?’, Nhuy asked me.
I wasn’t sure if she intended to attach any gravity to the question or was it one of those frivolous conversation starters that were meant to just ease the moment. I was sat across her at a bar at around 1 AM as the lights in Saigon were being turned off in some districts and were shining brighter in the others. The local rum she served me reminded me of the Monk back home, but there was a sense of occasion to it.
‘I’m not sure what you mean. As in do you mean, Vietnam as a country or generally..’
Nhuy looked at me intently, clearly gathering the right words as the English required processing, in her mind, as she was thinking in her language, but speaking in mine.
‘Just what was your soul looking for? Something beyond the travel and the places you needed to visit and the food you needed to eat. Just what did you expect from Vietnam?’ She closed knowing she had got it right this time. But she had left me speechless now and even though I was thinking and planning to respond in the same language, all sense seemed to desert me.
Seven days, seven flights, three different hotels, a group of six other amazing souls and all of South Vietnam at our mercy. Sometimes it felt like we had planned everything and most of the time felt like we knew nothing about what we wanted to do. I surely had very little clue of what was going to unfold and precisely how I was going to react to it and for all the trips I have done this year, this was strangely new.
Her question immediately took me to many places and moments on the trip and a few hidden places in my soul that I never knew existed or had had a chance to find a way out.
In one moment I was on a boat heading to Hoi An with her, watching the water calm down around us, the air quieten and only the sound of the boat take over my conscious. She seemed perfectly in sync with her surroundings, absolutely content in the moment and in her calm beauty I found meaning to my first day in Vietnam. A sense of peace mixed with unbridled joy of her company and the feeling that it was all clicking perfectly in place, in a way that life should and unknown to myself until that point, in a way that life actually could. The boat chugged along the river for thirty minutes but it was a lifetime I lived in it, many lives, many moments, unexpressed, yet complete and cosmic in its effect. The boat docked on the riverside, she ran to a fruit vendor and we were back to the reality of the holiday. But I’m still there, and a significant part of me is still on that boat with her, refusing to return and defiant in what I felt. I can still hear the water, see her eyes look at the hills and hear the engine matching my heartbeat…
In another moment I’m barefoot striding along the bridge leading to the other side of the Old Town to a noisy bar, with her egging some strangers into a conversation. He matching me stride to stride in our barefoot abandon. She tried her best to chase away the backpackers from the bar and the pool table and settled for some foosball instead. She refused to allow the night to die on us and in her refusal, lay our first introduction to a Vietnamese night and a special one at that. He found his rhythm with her and they took on the night while I took on some wild dancers on the floor with small talk flying around, the same music we dance to back home blasting through the walls and my faith that I was in great hands with the two of them as I built mental images of a life led here in the midst of the tiny fishing boats docked at the river with its inhabitants asleep on it with these merry bunch of backpackers from every part of the world dancing, drinking and ice breaking into the night. But the moment we stepped away from it all, it was immediately quiet, like it was never meant to be. Until she screamed for a picture and in our drunken haze we posed against the night and in her mad love for the moment and in her loving hug left me stuck there, in that picture, in that moment, forever floating around and waiting to unfreeze and continue into the night instead of returning home..
Sitting looking at the river with him while we sipped our favorite beverage on the trip, sapped by the heat and at the point of surrender, we just wanted to fall asleep at that table. But as it always was with us, it began with a lowball joke followed by unnecessary follow-up jokes and the heat was forgotten. We spoke of the year we had had, of him going away and of the tragedy that is life. Of how dreams may never be fulfilled but that our hope of wanting to do something lasting and do it together would come true. That we may be apart in years but could still strike a wavelength that was for the times. We gave up the sitting and lazing and got on our feet to find him a massage. We scoured the town and broke into child like giggles on seeing a stray Alsatian, or at the fact that we had gone around the same street twice, or the joke we had cracked an hour ago had returned to become funny again. And when I finally dropped him off at the massage, it felt like I was saying bye to something special. We would meet in a couple of hours but that really was it on the trip. That was my goodbye to him on day one of a seven day trip and it was special. And in that moment walking those streets with him, is where I still am, ready to go back in a blink…
Lying on a beach with the sun going down on us and with no one around for what seemed like miles, we watched the tide rise and gently hit our feet as we joked about bad movies, our house back in Bangalore, the fact that we were sipping beers on a beach in Vietnam while our world seemed so numbingly different just a couple of days ago. We made promises to each other of things we may never do or can’t wait to start and then he went quiet and so did I. Like in perfect sync, knowing fully well that our company was each other’s presence and on a day that began in such despair for me, all of a sudden I was rescued by a good friend who managed to make the setting sun and the rising tide and some pretty ordinary beer seem like the brightest spot of my trip. In that silence on that beach is where I feel assured and comfortable, in the know that I could be alone there and I could still love the drizzle hitting my face while the waves wet my feet, but I know that without him that day would have been half the day it was and Vietnam would have felt a little less warm. That’s me right there, on that beach, confined to its peace forever and never sure if I truly want to return..
In a way she epitomized everything right about the trip for us. Irrespective of everyone’s concerns and understanding of how exactly the trip should pan out, she was possibly a couple of degrees aligned differently from the rest of us. She was just completely in awe of every moment we spent there. She was who I constantly returned to when I needed a reminder of the fact that we were on a holiday, when the flying got a little too much for my gentle heart or the planning got to us all, she always managed to infuse me with confidence and real love for what was unfolding around us. Her pictures are memories etched forever and her enthusiasm was something I vicariously lived whenever I couldn’t summon some of my own. In her smile and joy when she witnessed something incredible or even something everyday lay my fascination for this wonderful country. In her simple way of looking at this vacation lies a part of me forever captured by her vigour. I would love to be her and at the same time I can’t imagine not having her on a trip of such soul searching magnitude, and in her love for the wonder that was Vietnam, I remain stuck..
In that wonderfully blurry night at Saigon, as we lit up an unassuming bar with some Bollywood, I stood there with her explaining this moment of poignant questioning by Nhuy and she listened to me intently, not betraying any emotions but still pleasantly surprised by this experience of mine. She didn’t waste the moment by trying to make it sound larger than it really was, instead she reminded me that special moments somehow follow me on trips like these and that she wasn’t surprised that one of them had followed me here too. In her ability to hear me, like really hear me out from deep down, she managed to disarm me in a moment that was confusing for me and it was this knack that had managed to make her such an amazing travel mate this year. In that all the beauty that surrounded us in every country we went to this year, it always took a little conversation and a lot of listening for an entire trip to possibly make sense for me. On that rooftop in the middle of Saigon, not so in the middle of the night, I managed to feel one with so much that was Vietnam for me and in that conversation I lie tied and unable to return. Unable to completely break free and get back to reality..
And finally I still can visualize, so clearly and happily, a gemstone museum with a tiny bar tucked in it. A glass of wine, a bottle of beer, many confessions, a few revelations, a connection that warms me in vulnerable moments of my everyday and that specific and careful picture of her against that colorful background and a conversation punctuated with silences where we would smile unknowingly to ourselves. That, there in those culmination of moments there, lies a part of me, destined to be stuck forever..
I didn’t have an answer for Nhuy as I paid for my drink and hers and walked out of the bar. I think it was best she didn’t get an answer because now she had a stranger to talk about who continued to be a stranger to her and I had soul mates to return to who had truly in their own way, unknown to themselves, made this trip a chapter out of a book that I am not ready to ever put back into a shelf.
There are many moments and experiences left behind in Vietnam and for it all I shall return one day, whether alone, or with them or some of them, either way, there are parts of me strewn all across the country and I must go back to bring it all back, piece by piece, and maybe finally give an answer to Nhuy..
‘So what did you come looking for in Vietnam?’..
I think the answer for now, is, me.
‘So what did you come looking for in Vietnam?’, Nhuy asked me.