A compilation of the fascinating, peculiar, inspirational, and unforgettable characters I met while traipsing through Vietnam. Follow my Instagram stories (@speedyleesh) to read these portraits as I share them.
Old Quarter, Hanoi | July 7, 2018
Words of sage advice interrupted my modest dinner of banh cuon, a savory dish of rice-flour crepes packed with ground pork and mushrooms.
“If you grip higher up on the chopsticks, it’ll be easier to use them.”
A voice of gravel, onerous and deliberate, delivered the piece of wisdom from a neighboring table.
The older gentlemen, a picture of carefree ease in a white caftan and a straw hat, smiled my way. His only companion was an empty styrofoam cooler; its contents, evidence of a lazy afternoon, occupied the tabletop.
“I come here every day and they give me one of these,” he remarked, gesturing towards the cooler. “There’s always five beers in there.” I counted eight bottles in front of him, but didn’t point out the discrepancy.
He was no bum, though. Steve, as he later introduced himself, was reaping the rewards of retirement after 27 years as an longshoreman in Australia; prior to that, he was in the Navy.
Asia was already well-worn to him by the time he decided to retire there, since his naval work shipped him all across Indonesia, the Philippines, and other parts of the continent. Despite all of his opportunities to explore the region, he found himself returning to Vietnam — once, then again, and yet again.
He put his wanderlust on hold to marry and raise his children, “But I still had the travel bug,” he recounted with a raspy cough. “It wouldn’t go away.” He and his wife, who didn’t enjoy traveling, eventually divorced; once his kids grew up, “I said, ‘fuck it!’”, he laughed. “My kids have their own families now. They don’t miss me.”
Six years later, Steve starts and ends his days in the comfort of a 450-square-foot apartment in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Every morning, he wakes up around 6 a.m. and eventually finds his way to the bustling streets for breakfast.
“I’ll take a walk after, then come back home and take a half-hour nap,” he said. “Then I come here around 3 p.m. for my drinks, and stay here however long I like.” He paused. “Say, do you drink beer?” he asked. “There’s a good spot around the corner where you can drink and people-watch.”
Dodging motorcyclists on their way home for the evening, we meandered around the bend and planted ourselves in petite, plastic chairs that littered the front of the aforementioned watering hole. Steve gestured to a man, and a pair of beers joined us at the table.
“‘I still had the travel bug,’ he recounted with a raspy cough. ‘It wouldn’t go away.’”
We toasted each other as the streets, now dimmer from the setting sun, continued to hum with the fervor of passing vehicles and the shuffling of those on foot. When the only remnants of our second round were empty glasses, I waved away the temptation of a third.
“Yeah, I reckon I’ll head home and take a shower, then have a couple of vodkas with pineapple and head to bed,” he nodded. “You have more stamina than me,” I told him, already feeling a bit tipsy from the two light beers I’d downed in his company.
Some people would consider his routine the quintessential retirement. Leisurely days spent sleeping, strolling, and imbibing — a vacation without an expiration date — are what many strive towards. Whether he’s truly content with that lifestyle, that much is uncertain. I don’t think I can count myself among those who would be truly at peace with its prolonged lack of productivity, especially on my own.
But then again, I’ve only lived a fraction of his years. It’s a question to ask him the next time our paths cross, I suppose. There are no plans set in stone, but schedules are superfluous.
“You know where to find me around 3 p.m.,” he said, standing up and adjusting his hat. “I’m there every day.”
Ha Long Bay | July 10, 2018
Sometimes the people you travel with are even greater than the views you admire together. I was fortunate enough to spend my time in Ha Long Bay with a group of wonderful individuals, who represented varying countries and walks of life.
Christine is traveling through Southeast Asia with her friend Brandon, after recently completing her nursing program. She’s about to turn 24, but has a wise soul that transcends her years. Although she’s not sure what type of nurse she wants to be just yet, she’s leaning towards oncology.
“I feel honored to be a part of the vulnerable moments of patients’ lives from beginning to end, even if they aren’t good,” she told me.
Harry, New Zealand
His thick English accent gives away his roots, but Harry’s heart is in New Zealand. He works as a painter and hopes to start his own business next year, once he applies for residency.
Despite dropping his phone in the ocean, getting stung by a jellyfish, and losing his banana-print shirt on the boat during our 24 hours together, he was always quick to flash a smile.
“Ah, well,” he said when he mentioned his phone’s demise. “It was two years old, anyway!”
Liz, United States
The only other American from the good ol’ USA, Liz and I bonded over our mutual confusion with the metric system. A fifth-grade teacher, she was also traveling solo during her summer vacation before heading back to start the new school year.
Did she enjoy working with that age group?, I asked her. “Oh, yeah. Once you teach older, there’s all the standardized tests to deal with,” she said. “And I don’t think I could handle little kids.”
After a stint in Russia, Jared stopped by Hanoi for a few days on his way back home Down Under. He bears an unabashed penchant for both vodka and musicals, although it’s hard to tell which he favors more.
Somehow, Jared convinced our tour guide to sell him an entire bottle of liquor to share with the group, and bought rounds of beer for everyone as well.
“Merry Christmas!” he proclaimed, passing the brews out. “Santa’s here!”
Vietnam was one of the last legs of Roman’s three-month journey, which shirked traveling convention. He’d already passed through Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in addition to the more ‘typical’ tourist destinations, which raised my eyebrows.
“It’s actually very safe in those countries, and very beautiful,” he assured me. “But then again, I know Russian — you’d probably have a hard time.”
Vrushik (“V”), New Zealand
The resident DJ of our posse, V calls to mind the character Tom Haverford from the show “Parks and Recreation”. He blasted radio hits on his portable speakers wherever we went and was always on deck for a good time, magically managing to herd everyone together at a moment’s notice and get the party started.
“I’m always photo ready,” he said, cheesing for the camera.
Her tattoos caught my initial attention, but Marie’s amicable nature and her zesty, early-twenty-something view of the world kept us talking. She was traveling with V, who she met and began dating in Australia, and was unhappy that they had to part ways in the near future.
“You said you might want to work as a flight attendant — maybe you can still see each other that way, through your work,” I suggested. “That’s true,” she said, smiling at the thought.
As he introduced himself to me, Dikshit didn’t hide a knowing smile. “My name means something…different, to travelers from other countries,” he said, in response to the laugh I couldn’t suppress.
“But it must have some meaning or symbolism in India, right?” I asked. “I think it means something related to knowledge,” he replied with a shrug.
Although he is a quieter spirit, Dikshit has plenty to say with his art. His camera was always by his side, and his photography delightfully articulates his travels. He is a man of few words, but his pictures say a thousand.
Sapa | July 12, 2018
The trill of city chatter quieted as I walked past Sapa’s urban boundaries, headed on foot towards its renowned countryside. Hovering clouds skirted the rice paddies that beckoned me, taking care not to fully obscure their pulchritude.
My vantage point awarded me a broad view of the emerald expanse that rose and fell across the valley, as if constantly in motion. The terraces were viridescent fish scales in the sea of fog; they were nature’s take on au gratin.
A voice from behind me broke my train of thought, and I turned as its owner rushed up to match my pace. She was Vietnamese, undoubtedly from one of the villages, based on her apparel.
“Don’t go that way; you have to pay entrance fee,” she advised, indicating towards the fork in the road skewing left. “Right side, no fee,” she said. “I go to my village; it is this way.”
Like many of the locals, I knew that she wanted me to hire her as a guide. But I made my intentions clear as to avoid any potential conflict. “Okay, but no trek or tour,” I noted. Another woman, her younger friend, caught up to us; she carried a large basket on her back, but expressed no difficulties or hesitation as we began navigating the muddied slopes.
Through pillars of corn and across fields of rice and indigo, we journeyed onward for two uninterrupted hours. The path was precarious, but devoid of tourists, who I spotted as a parade of ants further below.
The terraces were viridescent fish scales in the sea of fog; they were nature’s take on au gratin.
Upon passing the indigo, Vu and Cu — the rhyming was coincidental — held out their hands. “We work with indigo,” Vu said, sweeping her arm to draw focus to her tunic. “Make clothes, belt, purse with it by hand.”
Their stained palms evidenced their trade, a laborious endeavor on both artistic and physical levels. “My mother teach me when I am nine or ten,” she added.
I didn’t purchase any of their indigo creations when we parted ways at Lao Chai, one of the villages that dotted the map between Sapa and Giang Ta Chai, where Vu and Cu were headed. But I did buy an embroidered anklet from each of them as tokens of my appreciation.
“I’ll think of Vu and Cu,” I assured, pointing at the purple and black bands as I said their respective names.
Once again, Vu pointed me in the right direction — “That way back is easier,” she said — , and set off with Cu, who adjusted the basket on her shoulder. As they had so many times before, they receded into the distance, tracing the trodden path they knew like the backs of their stained hands.
Sapa | July 13, 2018
Wisps of steam from my miniature cup of cinnamon tea wafted upward, warming my face as I rested my feet.
The hostel lobby was empty on a Tuesday evening, and nobody manned the front desk. My only companion was the owners’ son, who was enraptured by the cartoons dancing on the TV opposite where we sat.
During a rare moment of distraction, he glanced my way. In response, I decided to test the waters and make a silly face. He surreptitiously smiled, only to turn away a second later and retreat to his bedroom.
But one shared, fleeting moment was all it took to establish a friendship — if only all relationships were that simple — and the faint pitter-patter of tiny feet soon crescendoed with his return. He approached me, markers in hand, and hastily arranged a piece of paper on the coffee table in front of us. With a quick look at me to confirm my undivided attention, he began drawing a landscape scene in highlighter yellow, blue, and green.
He was only five years old, but his lines were deliberate; he didn’t scribble haphazardly in the frenetic manner that defines most children his age. A large square created a house on a hill, within which he added two aligned windows. As he changed colors, he took care to replace the caps on each pen.
“But one shared, fleeting moment was all it took to establish a friendship — if only all relationships were that simple…”
“Very good!” I praised him, genuinely impressed with his artistic proclivities. He allowed me to borrow a pen, and I drew a boy in a striped shirt next to the house. “It’s you,” I said, pointing at him. He spotted the similarities and grinned.
“Elysia, me,” I said, placing my hand on my chest. “What is your name?” It took a few tries and a couple of bashful giggles, but he finally told me. “Quy,” he said, poking me and then tapping himself.
Few words were exchanged between us, but our mutual affection didn’t require any. When he saw me he ran over for a hug; as I typed away at my computer, he brought over snacks to share.
I only spent three nights in that hostel, but by the time I hoisted my bag on my back and waved goodbye, Quy had told his mother that I was his friend. “I didn’t know who he was talking about,” she told me, “but then he gestured at you.”
Quy will probably forget about me, but I’ll remember him fondly when I think of Sapa. As I learned, his name means “precious,” and that is how I would also describe the halcyon moments we spent in that quiet, sunlit lobby.