Vietnam/Cambodia Diary Part 5 – shrines, temples and that ‘sleepy’ picture

That sleepy picture – the one that Josh used for his business card – the one that has become such a poignant reminder of who Josh was for us.  We take it everywhere we go and we took it with us to Vietnam and Cambodia.

It’s a photo of Josh pretending to be asleep.  He is not really asleep, he has closed is eyes on my request and in a sense I am in that picture too.   You can’t see me but I am there – as a father and as a photographer, two roles, two identities that I cannot imagine being without.    The photo was taken as a joke really.   I was in the middle of a project taking photographs of people, most of them random strangers I met in the street – but with their eyes closed – and one day, on a rare visit to London, we decided on the spur of the moment to do one of Josh.    We were with his brother Joe having a drink on the South Bank – that is Joes hand Josh is leaning against.    I thought no more of it until Josh turned up a few weeks later showing us the design for his business card with ‘that sleepy picture’ as the background.   It reminded me of the time many many years ago when my father took some of my photos and made some water colours from them.    I felt as if there could be no nicer a tribute to my skills and the way I like to see the world.   We all like recognition from a parent, do we not.  Well ditto in reverse with Josh – I had no idea he thought much at all about my ideas as a photographer (and maybe he didn’t) but to follow them through as a way of promoting his own work (he worked as a video producer for the Ministry of Sound) was very very gratifying.

There is so much in that photograph for me and I could go on for hours about what it meant then and what has come to mean since Josh died.  Of the moment we took it I recall being slightly surprised at how both brothers were happy to join in with my weird ideas.  But I also I remember how little I was seeing of Josh since he moved to London and how I would savour every moment with him; and I remember how much he had matured since he’d left home and how much I valued his easy unhurried attitude to life.   As with all photographs of loved ones who have died there is a terrible tension between that moment of their aliveness at the time the picture was taken and the photographs ability to live on beyond their death as a constant reminder  of their absence. There is both pain and joy co-existing in a way that has no equivalent. Particularly so with this image of a boy pretending sleep, the more poignant now depicting as it does, a young man in perpetual sleep.

For this and many reasons then, the photograph  now represents a real and continuing bond between the two of us.   Unable now to take any further photographs of Joshua I have reworked it in numerous ways since Josh died  (see this gallery here ) and from time to time, I take it out of my wallet, place it on a hillside or on a gatepost, or simply hold it in view and photograph it.     Somewhere in all this is the idea that if we have a record of Josh on our travels, its proof that we haven’t forgotten him – it is one of the many foolish ways we have of staying in touch with him.

Josh’s brother Joe – May 2013
Josh’s Mum, Jane – May 2013

This is Halong Bay, a four hour drive from Hanoi and one of Vietnam’s foremost travel destinations.    We wanted to go there, one because it is an amazing sight, two because you get to stay over night on a luxurious junk, but three because it was one of the places we knew Josh had been.     And we knew he been there because we have the photographs to prove it.

Josh (3rd from left) with friends at Halong Bay

Josh had traveled to South East Asia on his own but had met these young men in Laos and they rendezvoused again in Hanoi making plans to ride south on motor bikes.   Of the five friends pictured here, Dominique and Don (to Josh’s right) and Jesse (second from right) would be with him at the time of the accident.   They are the ones who sent us all the photos we have of Josh from his time in Vietnam.   They are the sort of photographs you would expect from a young man traveling the world, meeting new friends, seeing new places, and wanting to send a message back home – here’s me over there, having a brilliant time, I’ll tell you all about it when I get back.

But if they are the sort of photos any of us might take as a momento of our travels, as often as not, they aren’t photographs of the actual journey or adventure, or of the variety of moods or the emotions that would accompany it. More often they are of the moments between the highs and the lows, constructed to the give an impression rather than a record of a good time.  We take time out of whatever it is that we are doing, specifically to pose with thumbs aloft, or to gather together in a group and smile for the camera or in our case, to pose with our photo of Josh.  And for good reason, we are there for the adventure after all not to make photographs of it.  Or are we?  Is it possible that these days, our travels and our adventures have no validity and possible then no value, unless we photograph them?  As a friend mentioned the other day, they confer on us ‘bragging rights’ like stamps in a passport.  But it  is the one sure way we can prove we were actually there and I know that without these photos (and all the photos we have of Josh) we would be far more lost on our own journey and our own purpose of keeping his spirit alive.

Imagine that we didn’t have a single photograph to remember him by.  Not one. Not even as a baby or a little boy growing up. How would that be?  Would we forget what he looked like?  Did he have short hair or long hair?  Did dimples appear everytime he smiled?  Was that really a man’s beard or still the down of youth?    And without his likeness in a photograph, how long would it be before we forget him altogether?      But even if the power of his likeness is overwhelming, does the fact that these are staged pictures, mean that we might lose too soon the sense of who Josh was rather than what Josh looked like.    We have no pictures of Josh climbing the steps to that viewing platform or lugging his backpack on board the boat.   None of the stuff that would tell us more of how he was possibly feeling.  We have no more than the photographic evidence of his presence in Vietnam and they cannot really tell us how confident he was with these new friends; was he nervous about the bikes they had bought, weren’t they just a bit pissed off with cold and the rain.  He is not here now to tell the stories behind the photos and without his voice there is no anchor to secure what little we do know of his adventures.   He had told us on the phone just how cold the north of Vietnam was in winter time, how pleased he was to buy a replica North Face jacket at half the normal price, but  we must use our own imagination to complete a narrative  of their trip first to Halong Bay and then south on the Ho Chi Minh Highway.

We don’t know how long Josh spent on Halong Bay.   Given the price and the season we suspect his was a day trip.   We were visiting in summer and were able to make slightly more of it  spending one night on the boat, visiting some caves, eating some fine food and diving in for a swim in the rain.  Unlike January when Josh was here, the summer heat is oppressive.   It is also the start of the rainy season and when it rains, it rains.  It rained all night long and into the morning by which time we had had enough floating luxury.

Crew members – late afternoon Halong Bay
Crew members – early morning Halong Bay
Joe – Early morning Halong Bay

On our return to Hanoi, we decided to mark Josh’s presence there by scattering some of his ashes in Hoan Kiem Lake.     Translated this means The Lake of the Returned Sword after the legend in which the then 14c King was ordered by a holy turtle to return the sword that had helped him defeat the Chinese invaders.    The turtle’s descendent is said still to live in the lake and like (or maybe unlike) the Loch Ness Monster, there have been numerous ‘sightings’. To the north of the lake is a small island on which stands the Ngoc Son Temple connected to the shore by a pretty bridge.   It was here we felt most appropriate to stand again for a moment, to remember Josh, and to feel a little more connected not just to him but also to the Buddhist traditions that are everywhere part of Vietnamese life.  Josh of course was not a Buddhist and nor are we, but being in a country where Buddhism is so strong helped us to understand and to be more comfortable with his death.  Remembering and honouring those who have died is such an ordinary part of everyday life in here, that our little ritual, public as it was, provoked little interest with passers by. It was hard to feel grievous, or even that sad. Such has been the welcome we have received in Vietnam. it wouldn’t be until our return home, that I would again feel the full force of Josh’s death, the sharp ache of my boy’s total and forever absence.

To give our ceremony more substance, we again drew on the power of Josh’s photo. We tore the pictures of him from one of the Order of Ceremonies we had used for his funeral and watched as they drifted down in swirly gig fashion to float on the surface.  If there had been a current no doubt we would’ve rushed to the other side of the bridge and wait for them to appear as they continued their journey downstream.   As it was the ripples on the lake gradually softened these shreds of a life, and Joshua’s image slowly sank beneath the surface and disappeared from view.  At the same time we let his ashes trickle through our fingers and into a slight breeze that had quietly begun to stroke the water.

How many times in the last two and a half years have we said goodbye to Josh?   Somehow it did feel easier this time. Now that we have witnessed the place where he died, I think we are more secure to let him go. Now that we have found a tradition that allows the dead to continue living without embarrassment, we are more comfortable with the pain of our loss. Now that we have scattered a small part of him  in a strange land we are more able to nurture our memories and to construct anew our own special rituals.  And as Josh and his death find their place in  our own family mythology, so perhaps, we can accept them as a more natural part of the human condition, part of that continuum of stories and legends and narratives that we all need in order to make sense of our lives, whatever our culture.

There was,however, no sign of that elusive  turtle.

From this moment, we would leave Josh’s card along with others’ offerings and gifts at shrines and temples all across Vietnam and Cambodia.    Buddhism has granted us a gift, and even if we don’t share a belief in an afterlife, the opportunity to borrow from other traditions and other customs has been (excuse the pun) a  “godsend”.    Because of Josh and his travels, we have been able to reflect on the many ways in which people find a connection with in an inner spirit world, to wonder at the power of collective imagination, and to discover how it really is possible to live with death in your life.     Being human has come to mean something so much more since Josh died.

Standing as it does in the centre of Vietnam’s capital city, the Ngoc Son Temple is as much a tourist attraction as it is a religious venue.  And as tourist are, so tourists will be.  Just inside the front door, sat an elderly man earning a living as a scribe; selling his skills to worshippers and visitors alike.    For five dollars we commissioned this beautiful example of calligraphy – we chose the characters with care but I’m afraid I have now forgotten what they mean.

The next day Joe had to fly back home.  Jane, Rosa and I flew to Siem Reap in northern Cambodia. There was of course sadness in our parting as well as a certain anxiety that has become part of the baggage of our family life whenever we, as we must, go our separate ways.   To let go of the sight of each other has and, I suspect, always will be much more of a wrench since Josh died.

Josh’s plans once he had traveled through Vietnam, was to continue on to Cambodia, back to Thailand and then on to Nepal.   Our two weeks in Cambodia represented that part of of his trip he was unable to do.   We visited the temples of the Angkor Archaelogical Park and then travelled south to Kampot on the coast and the capital Phnom Penh.  There follows, as a conclusion to this post, a selection of photos of scenes and people we met during our time in Cambodia.    I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.   Since a young boy I have been drawn to the magic of photography.    Hyperreal and pretending veracity it is, I think, the most surreal of artforms.    A photograph has the unique ability to capture life, collapsing it into a single moment, while at the same time casting a spell that will outlive us all.   Photographs can tell big stories and little stories but  always from the past.   A photograph always was, though it alludes to being now.   It can never be the future yet it breathes with possibility.     In a sense then photographs defy time itself and in a sense, you could say that  photography is always in ‘Joshua’ time.

Look in any travel guide for Cambodia and you can see fantastic photographs of the temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, Bayon etc.   Recognised as one of the seven wonders of the world, they are part of a huge area that was once the centre of the Khmer Republic (9th to 15th c).   This was a period of great prosperity but also of continual change, politically and spiritually, with Buddhism and Hinduism alternating as the predominant  religion.   The ruins are covered with carvings and reliefs depicting various myths, legends and bits of propaganda.   Highly symbolic and full of narrative they read like a storyboard for an epic Hollywood blockbuster and they must have expected to be seen as such.   Not unlike photographs they are still images that have outlived both their makers and their subjects.

As I wandered around the grounds of Baphuon, this butterfly settled on my hand.   I know many people who would say that this was a little bit of Josh’s spirit visiting me for a while.  Well maybe, but probably not.   And actually it matters not because in that moment I could believe that too; for the comfort it brought,  and the stillness it represented.   And it hasn’t been the first time I have been seduced into relinquishing my disbelief in some kind of afterlife;  the tiny green frog that appear at the foot of Josh’s tree on the day we spread his ashes there; the crow that sat and watced as I ate my sandwich in a motorway service area on the M6;   a white butterfly that accompanied us as we walked to the hill village of Tiglio near Barga in Italy.   This little butterfly stayed with me for a good half an hour, occasionally flying off to circle around me and land again.   Long enough for me to take a few snaps so I could share the experience, authenticate it, tell stories about it – to ‘brag’ about it.

As tourists (as opposed to travelers) it is difficult to engage properly with the history we are walking through, but we do love to brag about our visits to historical sites and monuments.  All the more so now that we can achieve this within an instant. Modern technology has given us license to record our presence ‘in’ history, but often only to the extent that we agree with its potential to make it and us into commodities.    In many ways we have sacrificed who we really are and where we come from, to a generic and ubiquitous ‘facebook’ image that does no justice at all to the moment or the place.

5 am – sunrise – Angkor Wat
Bayon Temple – 1190 AD
Agkor Wat – central courtyard
East Mebon Temple
Tourist police – Preah Khan Temple
Relief Carvings 12 c – Digital Montage 21 c

In common with many cultures, I suspect that I have an unconscious wish to believe that Josh is not really dead, merely sleeping – sometimes I can imagine him opening his eyes any moment now, if only to wink at me.    In any case, I have found that my images of people asleep, while the world continues around them, speak to that sense of ambiguity we have between sleep and death.

East Mebon – midday
Angkor Thom – midday
Boat Journey to Koh Rong Samloem – late afternoon
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum – early morning

We are grateful that Josh did not die of hunger or violence, from hatred or in war.   In the late seventies, during the time of the Khmer Rouge, over one million Cambodians including many children did suffer such a fate.  (this actually represents 1 in 8 of the total population).    It was a humbling experience to visit  Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Memorial (one of roughly a hundred ‘killing fields’) near the capital Phnom Penh.    Most haunting are the thousands of photographic portraits that line the walls of the Museum, originally the Tuol Svay Pray High School which was turned into a torture, interrogation and execution centre by hardliners of the Khmer Rouge.    Of the 14,000 people known to have entered only seven have survived.   The vast majority were carefully photographed before being brutally tortured and forced to confess their ‘crimes’.    Inevitably we will draw a comparison between our tragedy (a single personal death) and the horrors of this mass killing.   Not all, but most of these portraits are nameless, their anonymity to a certain extent, protecting us from their real lives, and their real deaths.  This is forensic photography at it’s most clinical but also at it’s most revealing.  Look at that mother and child, she will know they are both soon to die.   And rows upon rows of children and young adults staring forever long past their execution date, maybe the only photographs of them that survive.   See how fortunate we are to have so many photos of our Joshua – particularly the one in which he is feigning sleep.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
School visit – Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Choeung Ek Memorial Stupa
Station 12 – Choeung Ek Memorial perimeter fence
Family selling trinkets – Choeung Ek Memorial perimeter fence.
The ‘killing tree’ against which babies and children were  smashed to death.

Cambodia is now a young country.   96% of its population is under 60 and only a very few remember the civil war at all.   The following photographs are the result of mostly very brief encounters.   As portraits they too hide real identities, though their very anonymity may help us connect to a common humanity in which life and death can be, should be such an ordinary events.

Thank you for reading

Jimmy (July 2013)


RELEASED (standard version) by Jimmy Edmonds    - for more of my thoughts about that ‘sleepy’ picture see RELEASED the book I published soon after Josh died

Angkor Archaeological Park travel guide – Wikitravel   - for information about Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom

Tuol Sleng | Photographs from Pol Pot’s secret prison (1975-79)    - for the photographs from the S21 prison

Killing Fields – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia   -  Wiki page for the Choeung Ek Genocide Memorial

Sala Baï|Cambodia|Siem Reap    - The nicest hotel in Siem Reap,  and a school for young Cambodians from underprivileged backgrounds looking to work in the hospitality trades

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

Our Journey to Vietnam


Josh died on the Ho Chi Minh Highway near the town of Vu Quang in the north of Vietnam just over two years ago.  Two years that have both flown and dragged by.   Two years and his death still seems so unreal, so unnatural.   The boy that was becoming a man, venturing abroad to discover what life had in store for him – how could he not now be living that life.

Perhaps we have too many photos and film clips of him – so many good memories shielding us from the pain of his death, of his absence; so many happy, vibrant, quizzical pictures of Josh as alive as any could be.   Too many good stories that have, in a curious way, built up a fog of uncertainty around the fact of his death; a fact that should have been confirmed when, the day before the funeral, we all four of us stood round his casket and gazed on his lifeless form.  We stroked his cold hands and kissed his cold forehead and tried to take in this awful reality.    We were with him then for an hour, maybe only half an hour, who knows; time stood still.   But hovering in the night air, the question no parent should ever have to ask:  “why is our son so quiet; why is he lying in a box?”   We were there; his mother, father, sister and brother.   In his jeans and T shirt, Josh was there with ashen face, and sightless eyes.    We must have known the answer to that question        But that was then and this is now and time has discarded the evidence that was once so very clear.   If my mind ever told me then that Josh has not and will never return home, my soul has continued to say no, still and forever no; this is not  true;  he is not dead. Joshua is out there still, wandering somewhere in this big world of ours.

Laos and Thailand November/December 2010

As a family we always knew that one day we would travel to Vietnam to visit the spot where Joshua had his accident.  And that day is almost here.  We fly out on 16th May. Our initial idea was to continue  Josh’s own journey, with a bit of an overlap.  We would start in Laos travel through to Hanoi and then journey south to Saigon and from there to Cambodia.  This would have been Josh’s plans as he made his way back to Thailand and thence to India and Nepal.  Maybe one day  Jane and I may well do this, but for now we have decided to concentrate on visiting Vietnam and Cambodia.  We will want to soak up the atmosphere, particularly of Vietnam so that we can have a sense of the place that Josh was enjoying so much. Starting in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City officially but still referred to locally as Sai Gon) we will then spend a week in Hoi An before visiting Vu Quang where we hope to meet with the school teacher that spoke English and helped Josh’s friends with the aftermath of the tragedy.   Then tracing Josh’s last journey in reverse we will spend next few days in Hanoi including a nightover in one of the many junks that cruise Halong Bay famed for its thousands of small limestone islands.

With friends in Halong Bay – 11th January 2011
Halong Bay
Halong Bay

Joe will have to go back to work after two weeks but  Jane, Rosa and I will then fly down to Siem Reap in Cambodia, and gorge on all the temples of Ankgor Wat and the surrounding area, before traveling through to Phnom Penh and hopefully a few days lazing on one of the many tropical islands in the Gulf of Thailand.     Thats the plan but who knows, and who cares if it actually works out like that.

With Tram, Hanoi, January 2011

What’s important for the four of us, is that the trip is both a kind of pilgrimage as well as a well earned holiday.   Josh will of course be with us all the way but we don’t want his death and the sadness we all feel to get in the way of what can also be a journey of discovery.  When Josh died we were all changed in ways we never thought possible and certainly never wanted.   This trip may well be our chance to find out more about who we have become. I don’t think we are looking for ‘closure’ (as some have suggested) or that after we have been to the site of the accident, that we can then somehow “move on”.   Who knows what we will feel, or how we will react. Personally I feel a desperate need to connect with the place where Josh died so suddenly; not so much as a way of imagining a horror of the scene, more as an attempt to encounter a reality, an ordinary everyday reality with ordinary people, people who may wonder why we are there, why we have arrived at this particular bit of roadside.  And when we stand silently together, looking for signs, for clues, maybe take photographs of the empty highway, perhaps then we will know that the circumstances of Joshua’s death are both mundane and extraordinary. Both so deeply personal, so individually painful, as well as so universally commonplace.  Perhaps then I won’t have to dig so deep, past days and months of waking up to each morning’s cruel reminder, past the continual background noise of Josh’s death, past all the things we have done to create a new life for him, to find that ghost of a memory that tells me, yes I did see him lying there … dead as ever dead can be.

Full Moon Festival – Hoi An

An important moment will be Joshua’s 25th birthday on 23rd May. We will be in Hoi An and  it just so happens that the famous Full Moon Festival for May is on the 23rd.  Apparently its not at all like the full moon beach parties of Thailand where everyone just gets smashed out of their head – this really is about honouring traditional cultures with lots of poetry and folk music and of course thousands of lanterns.  So we’ll definitely be setting one off  for Josh.

Watch out for regular postings to this blog while we are a away – check Josh’s Facebook page, Postcards to Josh, and throw in some of your own thoughts and stories to the comments below – with lots of love  Jimmy

Waterfalls, Luang Prabang, Laos December 2010
With friends near Luang Prabang December 2010
Mekong River, Laos – December 2010
Luang Probang, Laos – December 2010