ho chi minh

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

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!)

Vietnam Diary – Part One

Saigon  May 19th

Arrived mid evening after 14 hour flight via Dubai feeling buzzed out but not too tired.  The taxi from the airport was our first experience with Vietnamese traffic, the driver leaning on his horn while weaving through the only other vehicles on the road – motorbikes, motor cycles, scooters – the rules of traffic being seemingly non existant. Hands over ears and eyes most of the time. Check in to Hotel Continental – spartan but comfortable – not as ‘faded glory’ as I had imagined – polished marble floors, chipped paint and spotlessly clean if a little soulless – the colonial era has given way to socialist efficiency. If Graham Green and Somerset Maughan had stayed here there’s no sign of these illustrious guests – any other hotel would have huge pictures of them in the lobby .   There was however a massive photo of a bride and groom – weekends is wedding time as Michael the butler from Claridges would say and over this weekend the hotel would cram three in.   The first of these was in full swing in the courtyard, the music rising with the heat and causing Joe and Rosa some concern for their sleep. Jane and I had a room on the other side of the building. Jane was out like a light but I stayed awake till 1.30 having started to watch a documentary about the American war in Vietnam – “Hearts and Minds” a brilliant and beautifully made film.

When you open the hotel window on the morning of your first day in a foreign country, the novelty of it all wraps round you like a brand new scarf.  The heat, piped music from the square, the advertising hordings, the constant roar of motorbikes, all confirmation that we are here at the start of our journey to find out more about the country Joshua was traveling through. The motorbikes of course have special significance – Josh was riding a 100cc Honda Win when he died and every time I see one of these bikes, my thoughts spin back to those earliest imaginings in the days after we received the news of his accident.  But  already I’m getting a sense that these machines and the roads they inhabit are not ‘the accident waiting to happen’ as we had feared.    To ride in what looks like chaos does not mean it is unsafe though I guess a fundamental requirement is to have 360 degree awareness of everyone else around you.

It takes a while to learn how to cross the road

Breakfast was a disaster – every conceivable meal and taste seemed to be catered for – porridge with meat balls, noodles, dim sum, as well as croissants and fruit yogurts. The coffee was disgusting – was it laced with cardamon, coriander, or chicory – probably none of these, maybe all of them. I decide to stay with jasmine tea with slices of tropical fruits.

Ho CHi Minh is everywhere

We spent the first part of the day  wandering the streets of central Saigon – it is Ho Chi Minh’s birthday tomorrow and there are red flags and posters of him everywhere, even a special photo display in the square. Something to look forward to. We don’t have a lot of time in Saigon so whatever we do will be very cursory – a spin through the market, a visit to the War Museum, a high speed lift up the city’s archectural icon to modernity – the Bitexco Financial Building, a meal seated on children’s stools on the pavement. This unsurprisingly turned out to be the better of any of the food we’ve eaten. There was a menu but our order disappeared further off down the street to someone squatting over a small stove in a doorway. Call me old fashioned but food hygiene in the modern world leaves a lot to be desired – taste!

Good Morning Vietnam (photo: Joe)

Her first day in Saigon and Rosa is picked up for soliciting !?!?    (photo: Jimmy)
The War Remnants Museum (photo: Jimmy)
Sea Cadets at the War Remnants Museum (photo: Jimmy)

On Sunday we became a bonefide contributors to Vietnam’s booming tourist economy with the purchase of a day trip to the Mekong Delta. The mini bus arrived at the hotel at 8.15 on the dot – standard Viet punctuality – before rounding up our fellow sight seers from the various other internationally branded hotels in central Saigon. On board were Korean, Chinese, Japanese, even some Vietnamese all with American accents. Our destination was My Tho, nearly two hours away down Highway One. Just to make sure we were on the right road in the right country our guide galloped us through 3000 years of Vietnam’s history and the two Indochinese wars – the first against the French and the second against the Americans. I didn’t catch every word – his English was good but heavily accented and what with the constant beeping of the buses horn I think I just about got a sense that his war, or what would surely have been his parents war was in effect against the communists. Vietnam opened up to tourism with the lifting of the US blockade in the early 1990’s and the influx of foreign capital. Our guide seemed happy enough with this development. In one of the first documentaries I cut for television, ‘Apocalpse Then’, I well remember a scene with huge Coca Cola banners hanging on the façade of the Hanoi Opera House – (the equivalent would be 20 metre high portraits of HO Chi Minh draped over the National Gallery by Trafalgar Square). The Vietnamese call this ‘market socialism’ and in copying the Chinese, have adopted what is probably the most efficient and most developed form of capitalism, a state controlled commodity economy in which one of the best sellers is history and authenticity.

A short boat trip from the bus station across the river and we were in what was explained to us as a ‘village’ and we were being shown around a ‘villagers house’ just down the path from the local ‘market’. It felt very conveniently mapped out for the continual stream of cameras and video recorders. On sale was of course was, every traditional handicraft – sarongs, t shirts, lacquer bowls, coconut sculptures, much more than I care to remember. We were then invited to sit and enjoy some ‘traditional’ folk music including horribly scraped out versions of John Lennons ‘Imagine’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’.  I suspect that we haven’t as yet found the Vietnam that Josh was getting to know.

On our return to Saigon, we found that the celebrations for Ho Chi Minh’s birthday were non existant… mind you he is a symbol of revolutionary fervour, not necessarily of capitalist growth, something that has been in double figures for the past two decades.

Midday – Mekong Delta – waiting for the rain to pass (photo: Jimmy)
Without Josh we wouldn’t be here … (photo: Jimmy)
The old and the new (photo: Jimmy)