The Secret Map

Returns: Vietnam

A stream of motorbikes broke free of the constraints of the road and spilled onto the pavement en masse. The red light seemed to have opened a new flow of traffic as opposed to a cessation of movement. I asked my taxi driver what was happening. He shrugged, “It’s just Monday morning.”

That was Ho Chi Min city nine years ago. Nine years on in Vietnam’s capital of Hanoi, I watched with astonishment as a young man casually ripped my insoles out from my only pair of trainers before gluing rubber to the undersides. He had initially stopped me on the street to offer to sew up a small hole. It was clear that the same hustle culture I’d seen at that traffic stop nine years before hadn’t hadn’t slowed down one iota.

Hanoi provided ample street photography opportunities at every corner, and I was glad for the respite that the natural paradise of Ninh Binh, two hours south of the capital, provided; the constant soundtrack of bicycle horns replaced by horns of a buffalo variety.

After meeting fellow Brit backpacker Laura in a guesthouse in Da Nang city, we rode to Hoi An, a sleepy fishing village where I’d spent nine years reminiscing of as a highlight of my first trip through Southeast Asia. Upon my return, save for the famous crumbling yellow walls, the place was unrecognizable. Mass tourism has transformed it into more of a theme park than a community, with countless businesses selling identical products and waves of Chinese and Korean tourists wading through the streets with cone hats and selfie sticks.

I later came across a National Geographic article decrying the same phenomenon when the writer had returned to Hoi An after nine years away, coming back at the same time as my first visit. I found this as amusing as it was poignant. In fact, I’m sure the writer saw me, or a version of me, handing out flyers to a bar there to other backpackers and thought “There goes the neighbourhood.”

The secret map to Hoi An had been leaked long ago; the current line of coaches along the river may be the latest result of the word of mouth spreading, but it seems there had been an oral wildfire since I’d been away.

The hard-sell hustle of Hoi An hawkers was mercifully replaced on nearby tourist-free Cam Kim island – all rice paddies and organic living – by wide-eyed smiles, hellos, and a general wonderment as to why we’d ventured away from the tourist pig pen of the town across the river.

Always venture away from the town across the river.

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