Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Holiday: A Gay Girl in Vietnam

 There’s always a lot of expectation when you board a plane to go on any holiday. The attractive possibility that being in a new place you’ll feel freer, more relaxed and have more fun is definitely alluring. A mental break from whatever is going on in your life and a different perspective (with the distance that being on the other side of the world affords). It often takes a lot of planning and not to mention money to travel. Some people work all year for a two week break away after all and this was definitely a much-needed break for me.
I decided to go to Vietnam because when I met travellers while staying in hostels in China they always mentioned it as one of their favourite places they had visited. I also had a friend teaching in Ho Chi Mnh who came to stay with me in London for a few nights so it seemed like a good opportunity to see what it was about and catch up with her. Learning from past mistakes, or so I thought I booked a GAP tour through STA travel lasting 12 days and taking me from Ho Chi Mnh to Hanoi stopping off at Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Halong Bay and Hanoi. The tour sounded like it would be fun and was advertised as being with a group of people my age. My trip would end in Bali where I would catch up with another friend for a week.
I arrived in Ho Chi Mnh formally Saigon at about 10am in the morning. I came out to a crowd of people waiting for their loved ones and taxi drivers holding signs for this person or that person. A barrier held them back with an opening at the end and I made my way through this. It became clear that jeans weren’t really appropriate clothing for this climate. I was given directions from my friend to find a woman in traditional clothes that would give me a card and put me in a taxi, so I ignored the endless offers from others. I found a woman wearing a yellow dress with a purple sash who did as I was told to expect. She ignored my questions of how much? Does the taxi have a meter? She appeared to be more interested in her phone and I was tired enough to let it pass. After having been in Asia before I knew this was suspicious. I showed the taxi driver the address I had scribbled down and sat back as we drove through the busy streets, motorbikes everywhere and nodded off here and there. The prevalent colour of that journey was a dusty yellow. When I arrived at my friends apartment on a road to the right of a bridge in district 1 I was told I was charged double but was really charged triple. You should only pay 100,000 for a taxi from the airport, the equivalent of about £3. Getting ripped off is something you’ll get used to. Always half any price offered as a rule.
That day we just watched a strange drama starring David Tennant and the brunette from Scott and Bailey with a work colleague of hers from Sydney. While sitting in my friend’s lavish apartment paid for by the teaching company she worked for I mused on the quality of life in London. We later went to a very expensive (by Ho Chi Mnh standards) restaurant in the district. On Sunday my friend went to work and it rained all day. I took the opportunity to do some work for a music events internship I had recently taken on. I finally ventured out after my friend had come home exhausted and was about to head to bed. I was reminded of the long hours at the weekends when teaching abroad and partly remembered why I had given it up and returned to London. I managed to find myself in the backpacker’s street at about midnight walking in my hoodie in the rain. I booked a tour of the Mekong Delta for 7.30am the next morning and left a note for my friend.
The tour was eventful; I held a python and travelled down the river in little flat boats rowed by ladies wearing the traditional thimble hats and barefoot. There was a big community living on the riverbanks in makeshift homes and hammocks their only source of income tips from rowing foreigners down the river. Often during tours in Asia you are shown a process or told about one, honey product making, coconut candies and at the end you are invited in Vietnam or pushed in China to buy buy buy. This tour was no exception and ended with live music with fruit and tea for all with a nice tip basket to go round at the end

It felt like I went out for a lot of expensive meals in the first few days, eating western food, which is usually what the more costly places have on the menu. I went to the restaurant that Brangelina went to on their fairly recent trip to Vietnam to show their adopted son where he was from. Young graduates which go and teach abroad can afford to eat out every night in the same restaurants as movie stars when they wouldn’t be able to get a job in Tesco’s at home let alone have their own place. This is the appeal of Asia and something that made me feel a little uncomfortable when I was living in China at 22 in an apartment that could house a family. A British passport is a valuable thing especially when you have a degree and very little work experience.

I also visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Mnh on my final day with my friend.  She drove me over there on her motorbike, which again highlights the freedom and independence on offer in Asia.
It became apparent very early on in my trip how one sided and uninformative Museums in Communist Countries can be. The museum was meant to educate about the Vietnam War but it had no background information at all. The first floor can be summarised by the sentence, the whole world protested and wanted to help us. The second floor, the Americans tortured us, look at all the horrible things they did. The third floor, the Americans have contaminated our country with Agent Orange, look at all the people that have been born Orange Victims.  Agent Orange was part of the herbicide warfare carried out by the U.S. in the Vietnam War from 62 -71 and got it’s name from the orange barrels it was shipped in. It contained an incredibly toxic dioxin compound. The pictures in the exhibition were very difficult to look at but it did appear to me that they just collected pictures of every person with a disability in the whole country. Are people with cleft lips Orange Victims?
I arrived at the joining hotel late after saying my goodbyes to my friend and later bundled my suitcase into a taxi. I was met by a bunch of grinning people, one British Girl, three Germans (a couple and their brother) and an American Girl. A bit later that evening I had my introductory talk with the tour leader who told me she was hoping I would be loud and crazy. After me responding ‘well maybe, after a couple of drinks’ followed by a brief laugh she told me that no one in the group had been drinking and suggested I introduce alcohol to the group. To say I was apprehensive about 12 days with these people was an understatement.
I immediately got on well with the British girl from Harrow (of all places) and it sounded like she had already got all the gossip on me from the tour leader anyway.  I had joined the tour in the second week it seemed and she was desperate for someone to have fun with. Trust me to go to Vietnam and befriend someone from down the road! I was aware that these people had had some time to bond and I wasn’t sure if I could dramatically change the dynamic.  In a nutshell, the Germans kept to themselves and were otherwise polite. The American girl seemed to have a real issue with me after the introductory dinner and dismissed my attempts to engage with her by making faces that would indicate a fly was buzzing around her head.  I didn’t let it bother me but the girl from Harrow brought it up when the American jumped down my throat when I offered we tan because our skin is recovering and damaged by the sun. I have my theories about this girl.  She would not have looked out of place at the Candy Bar, always dressed very casual and quite tomboyish. She also lamented the fact that she’d left all her ‘nice clothes at home’ when it was time to dress up. I’m sure I’ve used that excuse before! Her rather rude and dismissive behaviour towards me could be explained if she fancied me and didn’t quite know how to deal with it. You never know what’s going on in people’s heads. I’m really not the big-headed type but her behaviour was just so bizarre it really got me thinking. If I was open about my sexuality on this tour I wonder how that would have gone down…
We merged with another tour and went out for dinner with them at one point and this girl from Holland brought up that a woman once chatted her up. ‘Did she grope you?’ the girl from Harrow asked. It really surprises me sometimes when you’re not out, how seemly intelligent, educated people can make such ridiculous assumptions. Why would a woman grope you? Is that acceptable flirtatious behaviour for a man? Well it isn’t for a woman either and is probably unlikely to happen. It really tests your levels of understanding and forgiveness. As a LGBT person you have to isolate this prejudice and separate it from the person you know and like. This is quite a mild case and could be corrected by challenging the person but when your own Uncle says that if he has his own way  ‘he would string them all up (gay people) and kill them’ uncontrollable hysterical laughter was my only response. Anyway aside from my gay musings now and then I saw a lot of stuff in very short space of time.

Nha Trang is a mainly a beach city and it has a few streets of restaurants and nightlife. There is also a water park called Vinpearl. You can also try some watersports on the beach or have a mudbath if you want to treat yourself too. 

Hoi An is a colourful town and is famous for it’s tailoring and fashion. You can get anything you want (even shoes) made to measure in less than 24 hours. It’s a fashion students dream! You can choose the fabric and pick a style from catalogues or bring in your own pictures from magazines. Just strolling around this city you will come along nice temples and quaint bridges. The temple My Son is also 50km away if you want to arrange a taxi to see the Angkor Wat of Vietnam.

Hue is an interesting place. You can book a motorcycle tour and see some scenery, visit one of the Emperors mausoleums, have lunch in a monastery and see how thimble hats are made by a one armed lady. You can also she the Citadel if you have the energy.

Halong Bay is very famous and a must see for any visitor to Vietnam. You can also see the caves and go kayaking if you’re the active type.

Hanoi is a busy city; try not to get run over because the motorbikes are the craziest here. Tip: When crossing the street just walk at a steady pace and keep going. Don’t suddenly stop or change pace.
You can visit the Ho Chi Mnh Museum / Mausoleum before 11am and see the late presidents’ embalmed body if you’re into that sort of thing.  You can go past the Presidential Palace, visit Hao Lo Prison, the Army Museum or take a stroll around the old quarter. Remember that most tourist attractions are closed on Monday and Friday, so don’t trek down there for no reason. You can also see a Water Puppets show if you wish.

When I left for Bali I had had enough of Vietnam, all the haggling with the locals and the continual offers of pineapples in the street, locals offering to give me a ride on their bikes. …It was all giving me a bit of a headache. I stayed one night in a hostel and saw a bit more if the other side of travelling culture. All the girls in my dorm room went out on a pub-crawl organised by the hostel but I unfortunately had to be up at 4am to catch my flight. This pretty much marked the end of the cultured part of my trip.

When I arrived in Bali I managed to make my way to the guesthouse my friend was at. The instructions from my friend were it’s called Inada and it’s down an alley pretty much. Thank goodness I had found the number on the Internet along with the address because the taxi driver couldn’t find it. I got there though and found my friend in the company of his gay friend, them both tip tapping away on gay app Grindr. He seemed very chilled out and beardy. I also met his other friend from Argentina, who he often lovingly referred to as Argentina when we spoke about her. He had sent me a photo of her saying she was bisexual and I had the feeling he was trying to set me up as I awkwardly said hello and gave her a kiss on both cheeks. I wasn’t sure what to think when I was asked if I wanted to share the room with her and opted instead to stay in the same room as my friend.  I had only been there 15 mins and I was already feeling uptight.
It wasn’t long until I got all the dirt from my friend about his sexual adventures, the threesomes and other sexual encounters, this one, that one, all with graphic details. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to be hearing about all this but it sounded like Thailand was sex tourism at it finest. The gay capital of Asia and Grindr sounded like quite a helpful tool. We hit the gay bars that night. I had no idea Bali had a gay scene but here it was in Seminyak.  There were bumper stickers in all the souvenir shops reading ‘Jack is Gay’ ‘James is Gay’ and also penis bottle openers and other things. At the bar there were drag queens a plenty and I had a fairly good time after I stopped musing about my friends transformation and new found freedom. He even posed in some tight little red gay lifeguard shorts he had acquired and I felt a bit like I was being left behind in some way. Anyway the night progressed and I had a few cocktails and Argentina seemed nice enough while the boys were trying to get numbers.
We ended up there the second night but this time just the two of us, as the bars in Cuta weren’t that great. I had seen a guy on the beach earlier and pointed him out to my friend as definitely being gay. My friend waved over and looked back a few times but no real response. As we entered the bar we saw the same guy from the beach dirty dancing with a drag queen on the bar.  In the end this guy ended up being too ‘feminine’ for my friend and he found a nice Brazilian, which he called Ricky as he looked like a little Ricky Martin. He ended up wanting to go back with this guy so I made my way home on my own feeling like a completely sad individual reflecting on all my failed attempts to meet new people. Apps didn’t seem to work the same way with women, you could be talking to a woman for three months and they still seemed reluctant to go out for a drink. For men everything seemed so much easier. Are men really wired differently to women and more sexually driven? I’m not so sure. Men seemed to spill out onto the streets from gay bars. Where were the women? At home with their cats, at open mic nights being creative, with their long term partners watching films? What were they doing? I actually did meet one lesbian that night, we were chatting for a bit and then I realised she was trying to get my email address for her mailing list. She puts on a night in Southbank apparently! All these Lesbian entrepreneurs and their businesses eh? Thanks, if you’re out there.

I decided to let this incident pass but when my friend left me with a gay couple I barely knew the next night in the Gili Islands to pursue this Canadian model I told him how I felt. He still went and we argued about it later. I don’t think wanting to seize the moment and have fun or that you’re really horny are ever good excuses for treating your friends badly especially if they have come to see you for only 6 days.
The situation improved from here and we had a really good time on the whole. There is nothing like the company of an old friend and we always have a laugh the majority of the time. I’m not sure people knew what to make of us. They immediately assume we are a couple naturally.  My friend often plays on this and refers to me as his wife and uses the ‘this is our honeymoon’ line to try and get a cheaper room. Little do they know I ‘ve probably seen more penises than any straight girl will have seen in a lifetime when he was showing me the camera roll on his phone.  Nothing happened with Argentina and she apparently is in love with some guy. He bought her a pair of shorts so she knows he feels the same way. 

On a sleeper train from Hue to Hanoi, I was listening to Florence and the Machine in my bottom bunk while everyone was asleep. The train rocking gently and the light going round the small room like a zoetrope. I suddenly realised that I wouldn’t want to be any in the world or be anyone else but where I was at that moment. I’m not sure why but it was a mixture of the music, what had happened previously that day and realising how lucky I am for lots of reason; to be able to travel, to be a British citizen and have so much freedom and to live in a great city like London. Although it’s difficult, it’s such a vibrant city with so many creative people in it, we have the luxury of culture and varied nightlife and so many opportunities. God knows what made me think that on a cockroach infested sleeper train but hope is all we really need.

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