A Journey – a short story set in Hanoi

I wrote this short story back in 2015 when I first visited Hanoi. It was published in the Cleckheaton Literature Festival Anthology, Reflections, in 2018.

It’s easy to get lost in a city like Hanoi. The bustling trade of the Old Quarter, the relentless traffic, the constant noise and the unusual smells are bewildering. I study the map in the back of my guide book, trying to make sense of the street signs and navigate my way to the hostel, ignoring the offers of transportation from eager rickshaw drivers. Suddenly, I spot a group of backpackers emerge from a small doorway and spot the sign for the ‘Happy Hotel’. I have arrived.

I never wanted to come to Vietnam. I never wanted to travel, to be honest. It was always Emily’s dream, not mine. I am the home bird, happy to stay within my comfort zone. I picture her dressed in the cool floral trousers and vest tops they all seem to wear, a brightly coloured cotton bag slung over her shoulder, stepping confidently into the traffic, making friends, eating Phô on the plastic crates which serve as dining chairs here and enjoying everything the city has to offer.

I check in, hand over my passport and pay $15 for a three night stay. I could have stayed somewhere nicer, more expensive, but if I want to find her in this chaotic city, I need to think like Emily. The polite Vietnamese receptionist hands me a key and I nod my thank you, pushing my way through a boisterous group of Americans playing pool. They take little notice of me. Why would they? I am ten years their senior and of no interest to them.

The room is basic, but cleaner than I expected. I wash and lay on the bed, watching the ceiling fan spin. I haven’t had much sleep in the past three weeks and pretty soon the rhythmic whirring above me causes me to drop off.

I wake to the noise of thumping dance music from the karaoke bar next door to the hostel. Even at night, the noise of the traffic is constant. Thousands of scooters weaving in and out, blaring their horns. In the darkness, Hanoi feels more alive, more sinister. Anything could happen. You could disappear in this city and no-one would ever find you.

Emily would have loved this. She would have embraced the chaos, so I must do the same. I get dressed, put on minimal make-up and head out into the steamy night. The smells of street food fill the air, emanating from make-shift barbeques and cooking pots outside shop doorways. I step around parked scooters and broken pavements as I head towards the busy night market. A persistent hawker follows me, trying to sell me a fake Zippo lighter. The stalls are full of tat and I browse them half-heartedly, with more interest in the people than the wares. From time to time I spot a blonde ponytail in the crowd and take a second look, but it is never Emily. I will never find her like this; I need to be more focussed.

I stop for something to eat at a café. The menu is confusing, despite the English translation and my stomach recoils at the thought of eating “braised ox penis”. I choose “flied rice with chicken” hoping that the first word is a misspelling and nothing more sinister. A tall, good looking Australian boy sits on his own, sipping beer and smiles at me as I struggle with my chopsticks. I have still not mastered the art of eating with them. I imagine Emily chatting this guy up, maybe even taking him back to her room. She was never particularly discerning about the men she picked up. Perhaps that’s what happened to her. Perhaps she simply went home with the wrong guy. I am not about to do the same. I ignore him, taking out my Rough Guide, and pretend to study it. Pretty soon he leaves and I can relax.

The food is hot, fresh and delicious. I try not to think about the cleanliness of the food preparation area as I pick out a small fly nestling in my rice. I read the guidebook. Where would Emily go? Would she eschew the tourist sites and opt for less obvious adventures? Or embrace everything the city has to offer? We received just one email from Hanoi, now read more times than she could possibly imagine when she wrote it. In it, she announced her intention to do everything! So I will do the same: make my way down the list of the top tourist attractions and see if I can retrace her steps. I mark some places on the map and sketch out a rough itinerary.

Emily visited Vietnam in the days before Google Maps, Trip Advisor and Facebook were ubiquitous so I use my guidebooks the next day to make my through the Old Quarter, past St Joseph’s Cathedral to Hoan Kiem Lake. I walk over the iconic red bridge to a temple on a small island but I can’t see what the fuss is about. In the afternoon I visit Hoa Lo Prison, the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’, but the images of suffering and human degradation are too much to handle. I cannot bear to think of Emily being hurt. It is easier to imagine that she met someone, fell in love, and ran away into the sunset with him than to think that someone took her. I know in my heart that I am being naïve. She is officially a missing person, but only because they never found her body.

The heat is intense and I feel dizzy and faint. I return to the hostel by taxi and collapse on the bed. The tears fall easily as I give in to despair. I should never have come. I was a fool to think I could find her here after all this time. I ring my husband; it is breakfast time at home and I am comforted by the familiar sounds emanating from the kitchen table. The children come to the phone, anxious to spill out their news, asking me when I am coming back. Jack tells me he misses me. I miss him too; but I miss my sister more.

Later that evening I force myself to go to a bar. I sit alone, listening to the chatter of backpackers, sharing travel tips and experiences, moaning about the poor Wi-Fi connection and bragging about near-death experiences. In their swagger, I am reminded of Emily’s personality, her laissez-faire attitude to life, her optimism and sense of adventure.

‘You look familiar. Have I met you before?’ An older man, older than me anyway, pulls up a stool at my table. He has the look of someone who has been travelling too long. The tanned skin, the tattoos, the leather bands around his wrist and the relaxed gait of a man who doesn’t work for a living. He has a trimmed beard and bright blue eyes. He is attractive but I am immune to his charms.

‘I don’t think so.’

‘From England?’

‘Manchester.’

‘Me too. Well, Up North anyway. Leeds originally. So not far.’

‘No,’ I agree. ‘Not far.’

‘I’m sure I’ve seen you before. Maybe Thailand?’

I shake my head. ‘Must have been my twin sister.’

He smiles at my joke. ‘So how long are you in Hanoi?’

‘Just a few days.’ I gulp down my drink, wondering how I can get rid of him.

‘I came for a few days, and ended up staying ten years!’ He laughs. ‘It’s a great country. You here for a holiday or business?’

I swallow hard. I need to be brave. If this man has been here ten years, it’s possible that he might know something. He may have actually met Emily after all.

‘I’m looking for someone actually. My sister. Emily Swan?’ I take out her picture and hand it to him. ‘She disappeared. I’m trying to find out what happened to her.’

He studies it and whistles through his teeth. ‘Good luck with that over here. Nah, never seen her before. Sorry, love.’

He hands back the picture and leaves in a hurry. Another person who can’t, or won’t, help. I’ve met so many of them on my travels. The mention of a crime, a disappearance or the merest hint of police being involved and they do a vanishing act. I wonder what these men are really here for; what are they running away from?

We went through all the official processes eight years ago: flying out here, dealing with the ambassador and the Vietnamese police. They traced her last movements to a cash withdrawal at an AMT in the Old Quarter but nothing more. It’s not like the UK, where there are CCTV cameras watching our every move. It’s taken me eight years to have the guts to retrace her steps, to make a pilgrimage out of her journey, to return along the same route she took through South East Asia to the city that took her away from me. Now I’m thinking it was all a big mistake. I return to the hostel disheartened. I have been travelling for three weeks now and I am tired and homesick. I thought I would find Emily in Hanoi but there is nothing of her here. I am just a mother away from her family, trying to rediscover something that has been lost forever.

The next day I throw away my itinerary and go somewhere that Emily would never have gone. The Temple of Literature is a grand complex in the heart of Hanoi with a fascinating history. It is nearly a thousand years old and was Vietnam’s first national university. I was always the more academic sister, the one who loved books and studying. As I pay my entrance fee and enter the peaceful courtyard I am reminded why. Books are our collective memories; the history of human thought and imagination captured in words. Nothing is ever lost in a book.

In the heart of the temple is a shrine to Confucius. I stand awhile watching people pray, making offerings of fruit and money, and lighting sticks of incense. A stack of boxed cakes and condensed milk seem anachronistic in this ancient place of worship. An old man, with a wizened face and kind eyes, beckons me forward. I slide off my shoes and kneel, not knowing what to do or how to act. Nothing happens.

I am standing up to leave when I feel it. A hand pressing on my shoulder, urging me to stay on my knees. At first I think it is the old man, but when I turn round there is no-one there. A gentle breeze whispers on my face and all of a sudden I feel at ease. It is as if something has been wound tightly round my heart and now it has released its grip. Tears stream down my face and I feel dizzy and lightheaded. I sway a little and reach my hand to the ground to steady myself. When I eventually rise, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of peace and happiness.

It has been eight years since my sister, my twin, my other half, disappeared and perhaps I will never know what happened to her. Eight years of carrying round a gaping wound that will never fully heal, a missing piece of my heart and soul. Now, finally, it feels like there is a way through this. I bow my head before the elaborate statue of Confucius, breathe in the incense, and walk away. Suddenly I understand. My sister is not lost, she is in my heart. I don’t need to look for her, she has been with me all along, guiding me to this epiphany. Now, finally, I am ready to continue my journey.

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