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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jimmy (on behalf of all the family)
22nd June 2013