Vietnam Diary Part 4 – Hanoi: looking for Joshua

It’s nearly four weeks since we visited the spot where Josh was killed.  It was a big moment and has taken us all a while to take stock, reflect on what it has meant, and to fit it into the story of our travels.   Does that sound strange?   After all that was our main purpose for going to SE Asia.   But we have done so many other things too both in actual practical memory of Josh as well as stuff that had little to do with him.   As well as our ‘pilgrimage’ we were also on holiday and discovering many, many, wonderful things about Vietnam and Cambodia; about their peoples all whom we met were so generous in their dealings with us; about their culture and history both recent and ancient; about their food, their transport systems and their weather, all so foreign to our European sensibilities but so revealing of the spirit of both countries.     Any way as a final posting (or series of postings) we’d like to share with you some of the photos and the stories behind them from the days following our visit to the roadside near Vu Quang where Josh’s life came to an end.

Our journey to Hanoi was in effect the reverse of Joshua’s last few days of his road trip.      Along with some friends he had met in Laos, Josh spent much of his time in Hanoi looking out for and buying motorbikes that would take them on the 1800 km journey south to Saigon.     Josh made just under a quarter of that journey and now we were taking a bus that would take us as far in 4 hours that the boys travelled in 3 days.     Our mood was buoyant.     Surprisingly so given that the day before we had been experiencing the sickening reality of the place where Josh had died.  Maybe our good humour was a relief.   We had survived the ordeal of physically being in the place where Josh breathed his last, along with the anxiety provoked by thoughts of whether this was the ‘right’ thing to do, of the fear of not being affected by that level of ordinariness that we were hoping to yet scared to find.    That we had survived it with our emotions intact,  it also had so much to do with Uoc and the generous nature of our Vietnamese hosts.    Uoc (the English speaking schoolteacher who was called to help translate for Josh’s friends) really had done everything to make our visit to his town and to scene of the accident as easy as possible.   I can only imagine what we might have felt like had he not been there to shepherd us and to take care of us in what would otherwise been a such an anonymous, unknown and potentially empty experience.   Because of his planning and because of the humanity he brought to that moment, our visit to Vu Quang was in the end, as much about life as it was about death.  (see our previous post – a letter to Josh)

Uoc’s final act of kindness was to book and make sure we got on the bus at first light of day.   After walking us back from his village just outside Houng Son the night before, he was up again at six organising the pick up from the hotel.   I had never been on a ‘sleeper’ bus before but they are common throughout Vietnam and are often used for long journeys even in daytime.   And this bus was ultra modern, air con. comfy bunks and  pure joy.  We dubbed it the ‘playbus’ – there was an area at the back with no seats; just a space to loll around in, play cards, go to sleep, whatever.    Personally I could not be tired and spent most of the trip getting to know, or trying to get to know the other passengers.    When language barriers are so high, I find having a camera is a good way to break the ice.

Two of the three drivers
She’s his “sister” – I think he said
Josh’s sister Rosa
Hanoi – the ‘old’ quarter
Hanoi – the queue for the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Hanoi – Poster shop

Hanoi, Josh had told us, was the most exciting city he had visited  in his three months of travels.   With its tightly packed streets, it is noisy, crowded and vibrant with an energy that truly is like no other capital.  One of the things we wanted to do there is to find the hostel where Josh had stayed.   I’m not sure what we were expecting to find.   Some clue perhaps, some material form of connection to his few days here, to know that he had stayed in this room, slept in that bed, we’d be somewhere where he’d been enjoying himself, a newly independent soul traveling the world.    Whatever going to Vu Quang was about it was a place where Josh had died – now we wanted to find some place where he’d been alive.

There are only two backpackers hostels in Hanoi so it wasn’t going to be difficult to find the one where Josh had stayed.    It was the second one we visited that turned out to have a record of Josh booking a place there.   We took a look around.  Plenty of young folk at the bar, lounging round the TV set, here was a pool table and a notice board with adverts for motorbikes for sale – nearly all of them Honda Wins!   In the two and a half years since Josh bought his second hand Honda Win, nothing seems to have changed much in the way young people are  traveling and trading their way round Vietnam.     As much then as now the Honda Win is the favoured method of long distance transport  and today as it was yesterday,  the bike is in the temporary ownership of every other backpacker – bought for a couple of hundred dollars in Hanoi and sold a few weeks later in Saigon.   That Josh should be riding one when he had his accident now feels less like a cruel twist of fate, more like an ordinary accident in which he was the tragic participant.

Hanoi Back Packers Hostel – Honda Wins For Sale
Hanoi – traffic

Our current knowledge of the traffic system (so horrendous,so impenetrable and seemingly so dangerous on first sight) also helps to allay our misgivings that somehow it was the crazy way people drive in Vietnam that was the cause of Josh’s death.  For one thing, it seems as if there are no rules. But does that mean there are more accidents? In the four weeks we were in SE Asia, and after spending many a moment mesmerised by the amount of motorbikes criss-crossing at various intersections, we saw no accidents, not even a near miss and I have come to the conclusion that ‘no rules’ may not be such  a bad thing when it comes to traffic control.    In fact I think its probably a good thing.   In the UK, for instance,  a driver will defer to the rule of road – give way to on coming  traffic, claim priority at a round about, indicate when turning right and so on.  And being a conscientious rule observer himself,  this allows him to get irate when someone else breaks a rule.    But being a conscientious rule observer doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a conscientious people observer.   At home in Gloucestershire,  if I take a slight risk and start to overtake a lorry lumbering up the hill, an on-coming car is more than likely to engage me head on with a full blare of the horn and flashing off headlights (oi fucker get out of my way!!! – you are in the wrong!!! – you have broken the rule!!). And he would be right, even if his attitude be offensive. But his emphasis is on the rule not on the person he is about to collide with. Not so on the highway or at intersections  in Vietnam (at least as far as I could discern).    I never saw one moment of road rage. In fact the traffic in Hanoi and other towns we visited seems to work on the idea that you do everything to avoid running into another road user even if that means slowing down to a stop. The best way to imagine this is as if you are in a pedestrian shopping precinct. Here there are of course no rules or rights of way for people on foot, and yes there might be a slight altercation now and then as shopping bags clash, but no one gets hurt or injured because most times people observe and avoid each other. And thats kind of how it works on a Hanoi intersection – although people have a little motor and two wheels between their legs they don’t have a whole raft of rules to go with them, let alone rules to hide behind when things go wrong, leastways, the rules that they do observe are the basic ones of human interaction and consideration. And it works, it must work or they’d have invented rules, and rights of way, and sanctions and punishments to make it work. But they haven’t. Instead the Vietnamese are masters, not only of loading their bikes up with as much as possible, (people as well as baggage), they are very adapt (sometimes in very skillful, even acrobatic ways) at avoiding bumping into others and avoiding injury.

In our remaining weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia we would be traveling many hundreds of kilometres along highways such that Josh would have been riding.  On numerous occasions we witnessed overtaking (as well as undertaking) manoevures that would have had European hairs standing on end, but each time the on-coming vehicle slowed down and gave way.   This may be reckless of me to say so, but it feels like on Vietnamese roads there is a great observance of life than there is of rules and it reminds me of something my mother always used to teach us as we were learning to drive – ‘He was quite right as he drove along, but he’s just as dead as if he’d been wrong’. Be that as it may, if ever there was a rightness or a wrongness to Joshua’s death, our own experience of Vietnamese traffic comforts us to know that neither its crazy rules nor his own possible carelessness have  anything to do with it.

Four up – or even more. Not an uncommon sight
As long as Joe was standing still while he took photos, he was in no real danger of being run over.
Front steps – Hanoi Downtown Back Packers Hostel

Although Josh had booked into the Backpackers Hostel it wasn’t actually this one he stayed at.  This one here, we were told, was ‘downtown’ Hanoi; we should be looking for the one in the ‘French’ quarter.   At this point Jane told us she really didn’t want to pursue this search much longer.  People grieve differently and situations can throw up very different challenges for all of us.   We are both parents whose son has died but our mood swings differ and we are still learning more about how the other responds or reacts to new situations.    So it is that Jane and I have  different responses to to seeing or meeting people of Josh’s age, doing the things he wanted to do, doing the things he should be doing now.  Jane finds it too painful.   I can enjoy seeing Josh in their faces.  Unaware as they are of the trauma we have been through, I like to imagine him in their clothes, wondering what they are listening to under their headphones, what they are planning for the next stage of their journey.  This is different from two years ago when the hurt and injustice of all that he had lost would have filled me with an inconsolable resentment.  Now I am edging towards a more conciliatory response and can be thankful, happy even, that  these young men still have their lives. For Jane though seeing their tanned and healthy bodies, and hearing their laughter is still so difficult.

Josh – January 2011
Joe and Trang –  May 2013

 That evening, Joe and I walked into the ‘other’ hostel in Ngo Huyen Lane just north of  St Joseph Cathedral in the ‘very’ French part of the town.  The first thing I saw was the map on the wall and I recognised it beyond any doubt as the map Josh was sitting in front of in a photo sent to us by his friend Dominique. Somehow and for some reason I felt we had arrived.    Our bus journey and our entry into Hanoi had given us the flavour of Josh’s own journey, but here we were now actually standing in the spot where he had actually been – no doubt about it.     As important as it was to make our pilgrimage to Vu Quang, for us to be alive and breathing in the very same space as Josh had been alive and breathing seemed to give more substance to our connection with him.   Over there was a line of travelers tapping away at the internet, and behind us, with similar disinterest, a steady stream of plump, pink yet scantily clothed young things traipsing through the lobby.  We introduced ourselves to Trang, manager on duty that night, and told her our story.  Trang has worked here for over three years but with so many travelers checking in and out every night, she couldn’t remember our boy.  Not that that would stop her fully engaging with our purpose – it was her suggestion we should add  Josh’s name to all the others on the wall.  This felt like a gift to us, a gift from a stranger, who for a moment became our friend.  We were discovering as Josh had done, that when you travel it is really quite easy to establish quite close connections with others, albeit briefly.

In our case of course death is at the centre of any such encounter.   At home I have sometimes found talking about Josh and expressing my grief with close friends a difficult and uncomfortable experience. Whilst traveling though, it has been relatively easy to talk about our loss with people who don’t know us.   There is I guess less baggage around – of the emotional sort.      It may  also be true that in cultures like those of both Vietnam and Cambodia, talking about death is a fairly ordinary (and therefore less threatening) conversation.  Certainly  there have been only a very few who have not responded to our story with genuine empathy and understanding.   If there is still a healing to be done, then this comfort of strangers has played a significant part.    When Joe and I told Jane about the hand prints she and Rosa now felt able to join us at the hostel.

The French quarter in Hanoi – Ngo Huyen Lane (the hostel in the distance)
Scenes in Ngo Huyen Lane, Hanoi’s “French quarter”

Thank you for reading thus far – it helps that we can share our experiences in this way.   In the next posting we decide how to distribute some of Josh’s ashes, take a visit to Halong Bay, and engage the services of a caligrapher.

With love

Jimmy (on behalf of all the family)

22nd June 2013

Vietnam Diary Part 3 – a letter to Josh

Vu Quang, Ha Tinh Province – 26th May 2013

Dear Josh,

We’ve done it.   We’ve been to Vu Quang where you died in the middle of the road.    It feels nearly as hard to say that as when we first heard the news of your death.  But it is real, just as your death is real so we really have been to see the place where you died and to meet some of the people who were there at the time.    In a sense these are the facts, what we make of them, how we remember them, what stories we tell around them and where we put them in the timescale of our own lives is another matter.

Our day began on the morning after the night train from Hoi An to Vinh.   Actually this final part of our ‘pilgrimage’ to see where you took your last breath really started as we boarded the train with that sense that here we are at last; after more than two years we will soon be connecting with you in a way that we never wished we’d have to.

The train is cramped, crowded and noisy and we get very little sleep but as the morning light comes up, we now know that we are in Ha Tinh province, up until now only a name on a map, a name in a police report.   We are glued to the window as the countryside lumbers past, spellbound by the sheer number of lotus flowers and paddy fields all with peasants in conical hats working the land.   Our first opportunity to soak up the atmosphere of rural Vietnam.

Next door to us is a family of 10 happily cramped in to their tiny compartment. Their two youngest boys have spent much of the journey (irritatingly and charmingly) tapping on our window and pressing their noses against the glass and then running off down the corridor chasing a tennis ball. Squeezing past them is the steward and his trolley offering up rice and soup for breakfast which we decline politely. The last time we were on such a sleeper we were on our way to Italy.  You were eight and Rosa was three.  We were going to  spend a week with Sam and Doone and their Mum Adrienne. Remember the dead snake they were so keen to show us as soon as we arrived.  To feel you so close yet to know you couldn’t be further away is so hard. and we wish with all our heart we could hug you one last time.

We are met at Vinh railway station by Uoc, the Vietnamese secondary school teacher who helped your friends after the accident.   He is one of very few fluent English speakers in this remote part of Vietnam.  Josh, we want you know this about Uoc; he is a complete LEG-END. One of the kindest, most thoughtful people we have ever met. Before our trip, and when first we contacted the British Embassy in Hanoi we asked how we could find the man who was called out from his class to translate and help with the police reports. We received an email almost by return from Uoc himself – it was as if he’d been waiting for us to find him.   Now as we step of the train (which is running nearly and hour late) he is there to greet us.   He has spotted us immediately (mind you, we are pretty easy to identify as the only white people on the platform) and guides us to a food stall under some trees near the taxi rank. Uoc has the look of a young boy, with wide eyes that are hungry for knowledge and as we sit drinking sweet cold sugar cane juice, he begins to tell us what happened when he arrived at the scene of your accident.  But it is all too much too soon. We have only just stepped off the train and we need to adjust a little more to being in the presence of the man who would’ve seen your body lying in the road. The enormity of what lies ahead for us, is, we realize, only now beginning to sink in.

Main street in Huong Son

We arrive at Uoc’s home town Huong Son after a two hour dusty car ride through countryside that we imagine you too would have been familiar with.    Not that many cars on the road but so many motorbikes, so many trucks and buses, all with horns blaring, weaving through potholes, overtaking, undertaking, this side, which side of the road, all avoiding each other and all surviving, all somehow staying alive to do the same tomorrow.   It is midday and Uoc takes us for lunch.  Huong Son is not the sort of place for restaurant so you get and you eat what you’re given. Soup, noodles, pigs foot, some spring rolls (as you will know you get spring rolls of varying quality everywhere in Vietnam) and some strange pickled berry things that are common fare for the indigenous peoples from the hills not far from here – (not that nice!)

Huong Son buzzes with life but it is far from the tourist trail and the rooms in the hotel Uoc has booked for us are dark and decrepid; a Turkish jail would have more charm.  Very basic really, particularly after the luxury of  the house in Hoi An but again the sort of place you would’ve taken it in your stride – (note to selves  – must look up that footage you took of deciding who should get the beds by playing paper/rock/scissors – you lost we think).  But Uoc has planned everything for us with real sensitivity and he wants us to be fully rested before he takes us to Vu Quang.  Jimmy and Joe doze, Jane stays awake.   It is late afternoon when Uoc comes back to collect us.

Vu Quang and the moment on Ho Chi Minh highway where you swerved to avoid an old man walking his bike up the hill, is a short half hour journey away.   In the car with us are Uoc, his sister and his two year old baby daughter Sami who bounces around between front and back seat. There is something normalising about them being there. For them just another ordinary day out. Rosa points out Vietnam is so spiritual there is room for both life and death here.

We are now traveling down the same road you and your friends were on two years ago and we can all sense the exhilaration and the real fun you would be having on your motorbikes as the countryside, this beautiful countryside sped past.  The road rises and falls over a gently undulating landscape of forest and farmland both meeting the roadside as abruptly as past meeting the present.   The driver narrowly misses a water buffalo which has decided to resist its owners attempts to prevent it taking a shit in the middle of the highway.

A mile or so later we begin to recognize the landscape from the photos of the area we have seen on Google Maps.  The road divides into a dual carriage way and the line of lampposts on the central island stretch into the distance. The driver slows and pulls over to the side as we approach what looks like a roadside police check and our first thought is we have been booked for speeding. But Uoc has arranged for us to meet the cop who attended the scene of your accident.  This is amazing. Uoc really has thought of everything to make this journey of ours as meaningful as possible.  The policeman looks at Joe and then at Rosa saying they must be your brother and sister as they look so much like you.   He then follows on his bike and a couple of miles later we again pull over to the side.

We are here.  The heat blasts us as we step out of the car.  (All new cars in Vietnam have air-con – but we guess you know that!) It’s like walking into a wall of solid hot air but we also have a very real sense that we are stepping through a curtain of time, to a place where time itself no longer has the power to order our lives. The early evening sun throws long shadows as we clamber out onto the tarmac. We are a now family of five again, together in spirit and bound by love and our completeness spreads out across the hard gritty surface with an unexpected and soothing calm. Here at the place of your death we can feel the chains of mourning beginning to loosen just a little.  At first there is nothing to say.  Then our wondering becomes wandering and silently we begin to explore the scene, each our own archeologist superimposing previous imaginings onto this very real, this very actual roadside .    When did we-five become we-four?   How did five become four?  Why, oh why did we lose you?   In some ways we already know the answers to these questions so what we learn here is confirmation not of the facts of your death but a sort of joining together of our own stories – stories that were ‘then’ becoming much more stories that are ‘now’, and stories we can now perhaps stitch together into the fabric of what has to be – our lives continuing on while yours does not.

A constant stream of dumper trucks labours up the hill from the nearby quarry.   Past them and on either side flow motorbikes with a variety of loads, hay bales, water canisters, mattresses.   Did you see them like we see them now?  A farmer harnesses an ox to his cart and leads it across the road oblivious of the traffic.  Did you notice him?  Somewhere behind a gateway a dog barks.   Did you hear it? And did you see, did you sense, were you aware of the people rushing to the roadside as you fell?  Because Josh, just as two years ago when they came to witness something out of the ordinary on this unremarkable stretch of the Ho Chi Minh Highway, so now they are gathering to watch and observe us, a party of Europeans with their cameras and their sunburn and their somber looks.  There seems to be  something vaguely amusing in this spectacle until Uoc explains our presence. He thinks he has discovered someone who actually saw your accident: someone who then explains at length the events of that day. The crowd assembles while we wait for the translation, but it turns out he is only a friend of the person who saw it.   As would happen anywhere, everybody wants a piece of the action,  a claim on the tale to be told; especially when death is one of the players. This is of no consequence. It is clear that all the stories of that terrible day do tally and we are content just hear the sound of voices and be in the presence of strangers that have also been marked by your death.

And Josh, they have been marked and they do remember.    On 16th January each year since, a small shrine appears by this roadside. Wherever we have gone in Vietnam, people remember their dead by bringing offerings, (you will like this Josh) of sweets, beer, chocolates, fruit and cake! – and of course incense.  Uoc says he too comes here on that day bringing as he does today a box of cakes.  We begin to prepare our own shrine for you. We have brought a few momentos; some photos, one of your business cards, a Ministry of Sound CD, a card from the Gales, a string of shells that Hollie and Charlie have made. One of the villagers runs over with an old yogurt pot filled with sand. This is to place our incense sticks and at first he wants to put it in the middle of the road, on the actual spot where you lost your life. Others are walking out into the highway to debate the point. Is it here, no more likely it is there, perhaps it was here; we can see them becoming quite troubled in their need to get it right.  Would you know, would you care?

In the end we call them back to the verge and the yogurt pot finds what feels like its rightful place under the safety barrier. Uoc leads our little ritual and lights the incense sticks which we take turns to set in the sand.  This is our biggest moment and it is not without tears –  and a long, long group hug. In the purest and simplest way possible we are honouring you and we are remembering you with a small ceremony that is and will remain as important to us as your funeral.   But this time we are borrowing from another culture and another set of beliefs where people are expected to live on, to be reincarnated, where karma is of utmost importance to life and death, and where the spirit of ones ancestors have a sacred place at the heart of every home to be looked after and revered for all time.   80% of Vietnamese are Buddhists and practicing or not there isn’t a house in this country where the first thing you see as you enter is a shrine to the departed.

Uoc, his sister, and 2 year old and the policeman are squatting by the roadside.  They are watching Joe as he ties some Tibetan prayer flags onto a lamppost (another gift from the Gales).  Below it he scratches your name.  Rosa scratches a kiss.   Uoc promises that he will continue to come here every year on January 16th – and we believe him – absolutely.  ‘This is’ he says ‘your day of the dead’.  We are not Buddhists and we don’t believe in life after death, but what we did last Monday was deeply affecting.   We will carry this moment and make it part of our goodbye to you… our forever.

With so much love

Mum and Dad

Uoc is standing next to Jane – the policeman who attended the scene is in the middle

Ps – later that evening Uoc invited us around to his house for dinner.   Afterwards some of his students came round eager to practice their English.   Joe was more than happy to oblige with an impromptu evening class.

Uoc and his wife and baby are standing next to Joe – his grandmother seated next to Jimmy (recently renamed ‘the happy buddha!)