Stepping out of the airport, the humidity drapes around me like wet muslin. Hundreds of motorbikes fly through the streets like blood cells through arteries. In a taxi that reeks of stale smoke I point to the address scrawled on a deteriorating scrap of paper. The driver flashes a tobacco-stained smile, teeth missing. He tears away from the curb and floors it through the city.
Light and colour flies past. When we finally make it to the hotel, I’m breathless. It’s late and I shove the money in his hand and claw my way out, lugging along my heavy backpack. The city is beautiful at night, but I’m too tired to appreciate it yet. The hotel has been expecting a mi chang, I check in and they hand me the keys.
Inside I wash myself with a cool cloth. I collapse on the sheets, close my eyes, drift. I stroke the hard skin of my belly and it feels solid, empty. For the first time in months I’m not thinking about you, until suddenly I am.
just need some space.
Bad dreams strand me in a half-state of dreaming and wakefulness. I rise with the sun, ignore the stabbing sensation in my chest and suck down a bottle of water. I flick through the guidebook and sentences I’ve pre-read pop out at me.
Aggression and assault from men is not common here, and it is not implied that women’s clothing choices should provoke any ill behaviour upon them but making smart clothing choices is the easiest way to not attract unwanted attention.
I pack the guidebook along with sunscreen, a sweater, and tuck my camera in a safe place, preparing to face the day. I am unadorned. No makeup. Plain, modest clothing. My hair is pulled back in a neat plait. Except for a watch, I wear no jewellery. The guidebook tells me it attracts wandering eyes and hands.
Hồ Chí Minh is already buzzing with life. The light, the air is different and disorientating. Black wires wander overhead like jungle vines. Bikes dominate the streets. The tiny birds in cages outside storefronts for luck, swing and sing and my heart is broken. A man yells at me in Viet and I don’t understand.
I have time to sit in a quiet shop and review my guidebook, reading about the Reunification Palace and remnants of war. I drink strong coffee with condensed milk and order rice paper rolls for breakfast. I am charged five dollars extra for using a napkin, feeling acutely aware I am mi chang.
The day is spent exploring and trying not to get run over. Crossing the road I walk slowly, the bikes easing around me like water. In the Jade Emperor Pagoda I light three sticks of incense and say three prayers. One for protection, one for healing, and one for something good to happen.
In the afternoon I face the scrum of the markets. I buy barbequed meat on a stick and drink a can of coke. There are stray cats, a crate full of fluffy yellow chicks, and other forsaken animals locked under a dome of wooden bars. Life is cheap. I hold tight to my sling bag. I am pressured into paying too much for an ugly paisley scarf, then feel obligated to wear it.
At night I slurp hungrily at a bowl of vegetarian phở with chilli and fish sauce. There is a bar that serves cheap cocktails. The barman’s name is Thui and he lights two sweet shots on fire for me and we have one each. It runs sticky sweet down my throat. The paisley scarf hangs loosely around my shoulders. I smoke shisha in strawberry, apple and raspberry with some other tourists and we dance. I stumble home and tell myself I am fine. I am fine.
why do u have to make everything so serious?
I still hate you. At home I couldn’t face the world. Like a post-traumatic stress survivor I saw you everywhere. At the supermarket, on the train, by the beach. At night I’d feel your warm fingers trailing up my arm and would wake in a cold sweat.
For months I prayed to have you back, but when that didn’t work, I prayed to go back in time, forget I ever met you. When that didn’t work, I bargained with the universe. When that didn’t work, I curled up on the bed and stayed there for five days straight.
Months ago, your last night in Australia, we drank cheap beer and left your friends in the park. We wandered down the dark wooden planks to the beach in the moonlight, your hand loose as I clutched it, desperately trying to keep up.
On the highest dune we laid in the sand amongst the rustling reeds and spoke about life and work and played your endless game of hypotheticals.
‘If you could live with your brain hooked up to a machine to experience the perfect world, would you?’ you asked.
I thought about it for a while and squinted at the stars. ‘Yes. There’s too much pain. I would choose happiness.’
My head bobbed on your hard chest as you sighed. I cringed, knowing I had picked the wrong answer.
When you got bored of the game we kissed. I sensed your mind elsewhere and tried to bring you back.
‘I love you.’
You stopped my hand stroking your chest like swatting a fly. ‘Don’t do that.’
The wind blew. I pretended there was sand in my eyes and we left. The next day you would be gone. Off to chase powder and girls in Canada. I didn’t know it at the time but your bag had been packed for weeks.
i miss you. come over.
In ten days of studying my guidebook and listening to the language I have learnt basic phrases. Vâng, không, làm ơn, cảm ơn bạn.
After catching a rattling overnight train north I have found myself in Hội An, city of textiles. The streets are a rich tapestry of colour, ochre buildings, red roofs, green-grey water. The dialect is meant to be slightly different but I can’t tell.
I have come to depend on cà phê da in the morning and don’t mind my steady addiction to caffeine and the condensed milk, laden with sugar. I no longer take small pleasures for granted. I touch my belly and know my body is my own, I can bring no harm.
Most days I stroll through the streets and sit by the water. Today is overcast and spots of rain brush my skin. Feeling reckless, I hire a motorbike and the man shakes his head as if I’m crazy. There’s a storm coming. He offers to accompany me for an additional five hundred thousand dong, but I tell him in English that I’m fine and he shrugs. He arms me with a plastic poncho and a curling paper map and traces the route to Marble Mountain.
Wearing my helmet, the plastic poncho billowing around me, he teaches me how to accelerate, brake, indicate. I scoot forward, the movement taking me by surprise and I shriek. He laughs and laughs. Foolish cô gái.
For hours I ride and the rain comes for me. I feel my ass frozen to the seat and my fingers ache from the cold. My ugly paisley scarf keeps my neck and face insulated. When I see the mountain in the distance a smile takes me by surprise.
After parking the bike, I begin the climb. The stone steps are covered in lichen like age spots on weathered skin. Rich leafy canopies protect me from drizzle. Marble Mountain is dotted with Buddhist pagodas and I stop at as many as I can, my greedy pupils drinking in all the tiny beautiful details. A carving, a mosaic, a frieze above a marble keystone. Quan Âm watches over me at each station.
we can still be friends.
I never told you, so I have no reason to be angry, but I was. It boiled inside me like a blister that wouldn’t break. It was the Wednesday after you left. I caught a bus to the clinic alone. The receptionist told me sometimes there were people outside with signs, but today was a good day. I mustered a laugh but it fell flat.
After filling in a long form they asked me to pay up front because afterwards I would be drowsy. They made me dress in a white gown and soft fluffy socks, then took me to a white room where they weighed me and rubbed gel on my belly before waving an ultrasound wand over it. A tiny blip appeared on the grainy screen and I told them to stop. Please, just get it over with. They asked me to count back from ten and I made it to five before sinking into a dreamless sleep.
When I came round I felt surprised, for some reason, to be alive. There was no wave of relief. I did not feel lighter. It felt like I had blinked, although I knew many hours had passed. They brought me tissues and patted my arm. Fed me cookies and milk. After pulling myself together, I was ready to leave. The receptionist threw me a pitying look when I requested a taxi. She didn’t ask but I explain away your absence anyway. My partner couldn’t make it today but he really wanted to be here.
ill be back next jan. maybe we can hook up again then
I’ve memorised all the text messages you’ve sent me and they race through my mind like a flipbook as I climb to the top of the mountain. A sign indicates the only way forward is through the dark opening of a cave. A Vietnamese women appears with a torch and offers to show me the way. I decline her help at first but she does not let me refuse.
Inside smells of damp stone and there are carvings on the wall. I am afraid until the tunnel takes us to a shrine with flowers and another statue of Quan Âm and a calm envelopes me. The darkness seems to go forever and just when I think about heading back, the woman chirps and I look to see a medallion of light. She offers her hand and helps me climb up the stones as the aperture above widens. I climb the steep steps and wiggle out of the hole of light and emerge into the open air. It’s cold and the wind whips my hair around my face.
The woman holds her hand out for a tip then leaves me to enjoy the view. Sweet fat drops of rain collide with my cheeks and I laugh, still out of breath. The ugly paisley scarf flies out behind me like a cape. I can see another peak covered in greenery and China Beach in the distance, waves curling against the shore like cream.
The heat of your fingers trails up my arm and the moment is sabotaged. Every message you have ever sent me recites in my head like a curse, along with every mistake I have ever made.
just wanna chill with my friends tonight / won’t be free til about 10 ill come round then xoxo / dont make me feel guilty about leaving / just need to spread my wings
I picture a balloon, bright and pink as a womb. With each breath I fill it with your words. All those lonely nights. Broken promises. Those manipulative methods I thought were love. Your childish, grammarless messages. All drawing me powerlessly back to you like a hooked fish.
When the balloon is fat with pain and breathing, I tie it off and let it go. It is carried away with the wind and the rain wets my hair, my cheeks, my lips. I am finally free.