So I’d made it to Hanoi. Crossing the border had been a relief, China had become overwhelming, especially living in Leshan where I was isolated. As much as I love living in China you need to get away sometimes, there’s no escaping the oppressive nature of their government, the censored internet and being constantly stared at by people. It was pissing down with rain when I reached Hanoi, I hadn’t really thought much about the weather but I had arrived in South East Asia during the rainy season.
Vietnam is a place I’d always wanted to go to. I love history and modern history especially, being there was like living all those text books I used to read back in school. It also reaffirmed to me how far I’d come in life. During my years of madness I massively lacked confidence to the point where I didn’t even want to go into a shop because it involved interacting with people. I’d walk with my head down, mind overtaken with paranoia and a lack of self-worth, yet here I was in Vietnam, travelling around on my own.
I’d booked a dorm room in the French quarter of Hanoi. When I arrived the geezer took me up to the dorm, when he opened the door it was absolute chaos. There were pissed people everywhere, standing in the middle of the room was an American who was wearing an Argentina football shirt. He had a big beard and spoke in a southern accent. The first thing he said when he saw me was ‘you look like a man who likes to drink.’ I stood there thinking, ‘what the fuck is this madness?’ There was an Australian on the bed next to him complaining because he didn’t have any Valium left and needed to go and get some.
In the last eleven years, there’s never been a point where I’ve thought to myself ‘I want a drink’. It just doesn’t happen anymore, I have no desire for it. People often think I don’t like being around people drinking because it’ll set me off craving. It doesn’t, the reason I don’t like being around drunk people is because they’re annoying. I’d been in situations many times where I’d been offered a drink and people said ‘you were really strong’ for not accepting. I don’t see it as strong, I just didn’t and don’t want it. When I was in India, an old man invited me into his house, poured me a glass of whiskey and put it in my hand. I put it on a table and walked out.
Thankfully they left the dorm the next day, going on a boat trip somewhere which was just a glorified booze cruise. It’s probably hypocritical of me to say, but I don’t understand why people will go so far away just to get pissed every night. You’re travelling around some of the most beautiful countries in the world, enjoy it, don’t waste it.
Hanoi was cool. I’ve come across quite a number of people who don’t like Vietnam because they say people harass them all the time, trying to get them to buy stuff and trying to rip them off. That’s just how it is. If you ignore them they leave you alone. Tourism is a big part of the economy in South East Asia, to people who are just trying to make some money they see you as a walking wallet. You might not think you have much money but to them you do. You can’t equate a whole country with a few people either, especially in a big city like Hanoi. A smile and a ‘no thank you!’ goes a long way.
One of the more surreal parts of the trip was going to see the body of Ho Chi Minh. It’s encased in glass and surrounded by soldiers who get the hump if you even so much as smile. I understand that, the man is revered in Vietnam. The body looked like plasticine and put me off going to see any other dead communists. An interesting fact: Ho Chi Minh used to go and watch Chelsea at Stamford Bridge when he was working in London.
From Hanoi I took a train down the coast of Vietnam to the port city of Dannang. That train journey had some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen and is well worth doing. It was at this point I decided I wasn’t going back to China to teach English. Just the thought of heading back up towards Hanoi and spending another six months in Leshan made me feel sick. I ended up spending six weeks in Vietnam before getting a boat along the Mekong river into Cambodia.
While in Cambodia I received a message on Facebook telling me one of my close friends had died in Thailand. I hadn’t seen him for a good few years, when you go into rehab one of the things you have to do is drop old friends out. As hard as it is and as harsh as it sounds you have little choice. In recovery you are the number one priority, old friends are triggers and you’re only putting yourself at risk by being around them. I had spoken to him on the phone but his life sounded exactly the same as the one I had left behind.
We’d always said we’d go to South East Asia. Between the ages of about sixteen and twenty there were three of us who were inseparable. If one of us was there then we’d all be there. People say that friendships and relationships when you’re using are meaningless because they are based on one thing but those two friends are the closest I’ve ever had and even to this day, I’ve not had people who I could laugh and joke with, confide in like I did with them. We’d spend ages looking over maps of Asia and talking about where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do there.
Our lives took completely different paths, yet it seemed strange that when he died I was so close. Being able to accept you can’t help everyone is an important thing. Some people don’t want help and helping some people will be to your own detriment. I might have been through it but I don’t see myself as having a magic formula for recovery. I just do what I do, live my life to the fullest and try to achieve as much as possible. You can’t allow your life to be dominated by other people, you have to do what’s good for you. It still hurts because it’s human nature, we always think back and wonder what we could have done differently. You can’t have regrets though, just appreciate the good times you had together with people.
I spent about a month in Cambodia. It’s a country which has an underlying feeling of sadness which is understandable given its recent past. Going to see the prison which the Khmer Rouge had set up in the middle of Phnom Penh is one of the most sobering things I have done. There was an old guy there who had survived the prison, I think he was only one of a few and he was signing books. We don’t always appreciate where we come from, living in stable western democracies where political violence is rare is the reason we are able to live the relatively comfortable lives we do.
The Khmer Rouge systematically killed millions all in the name of ideology. Even wearing glasses was enough to get you killed, glasses being a sign of intellect. These are events which happened far away yet should be taught, especially in the current times where the polarisation of politics is becoming more and more dangerous. You rarely see old people in Cambodia, an entire generation was almost wiped out.
I moved on to Laos where I spent a week and then crossed into Thailand and into Chiang Mai. It was there I received an email telling me about a scholarship for a university in Chengdu. You could learn Chinese for one semester for free. I filled it in and didn’t think much more about it until I was back in London.
Bangkok is another place which has a bad reputation. It’s nowhere near as bad as is made out and is the most westernised city in that part of the world. It’s easy to avoid the seedy parts. Don’t get me wrong, you will see it but it isn’t the den of iniquity which is portrayed in the media. Most backpackers end up in the Famous Khao San Road which is a road filled with hostels and foreigners. Those just off the plane drinking as much as they can, still in the mindset they had been in at home. If you were to see them again in a few weeks you’d see different people, the aggression and confrontational manner gone.
I ended up in Malaysia for a few weeks before flying back to London on a budget airline. I thought I’d had a touch getting a flight from Kuala Lumpur to London for only £150 but it was the worst flight I’ve ever been on. Think sitting on a Ryanair flight for 14 hours. I made it back though and was delighted to find I had been offered a scholarship in the university in China so I was going back to learn Chinese once Christmas was over.
The four months I spent travelling around South East Asia are the freest I’ve ever felt, I’d achieved something. People doubted that I’d ever get clean yet there I was doing things a lot of those same people could only ever dream of. People will always tell you you can’t do something or you can’t achieve something. Don’t listen to them, if you’ve got the motivation and the desire you’ll be able to achieve it. It won’t always be a smooth ride, you’ve got to be able to take knock backs but as long as you persist you’ll get there.
After Christmas it was back to China again and a whole new adventure in learning a new language. I’d always wanted to learn languages yet never pushed myself hard enough, now I had the opportunity to do just that.
Previous three parts are here:
I have a new novel coming out next week which will I’ll be giving away for free for three days from 10th Jan to 13th Jan. Follow this blog or like my Facebook Page so as to get the link to the download when it’s posted. You can read a couple of chapters from it here and here. If you like what you read, please share it. I don’t want to give a sob story but I’m a completely independent author, I literally do everything on my own including writing this blog and writing my books. Getting your stuff out to people isn’t that easy, so any help in growing my audience is much appreciated. Have a good weekend 🙂
I’ll be writing another People We Meet this evening.