Reunification Express – 2 – Typhoon Haiyan

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Simon and I thought it would be a marvellous idea to consume a whole chili after breakfast – followed by a swim. The results were predictably unpleasant – mainly involving staggering around the swimming pool; lurching between hysterical laughter and the very real possibility of vomiting in front of the worried looking family with small children.

Outside the wind was strong – bending the palm trees at uncomfortable angles. There were early signs of the lock down coming. Businesses began to place sand bags on the tin roofs – the trees lining the roads were being cut back.  It felt like something big was coming.

We hired motorbikes from a friendly man, who also insisted on following us to the petrol station; and pumping the petrol himself – just in case such complexities were beyond us.

We meandered back through the town, took every wrong turn possible, and finally made it out into the countryside – following a small river, which lead us to the ocean. The grey sheet above us began rain, then quickly stopped.

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Cua Dai beach looked like how I expected it would look after Typoon Haiyan. Debris littered the sand, the result of previous storm.

Sometimes it is the simplest things in life that are the best – jumping into big waves is a prime example. Simon and I spent plenty of time perfecting the right technique for hurling one’s self into a moving wall of water. Tash and Minh Anh looked on – possibly considering their decisions in husband/boyfriends. We also dug a hole – as boys tend to do – which was hard work, and far less satisfying than we had originally thought.

We spent the afternoon wandering around the town – walking up and down the same streets but seemingly finding something different to entertain us every time.  The rain came and went – then came and went. Each time we ducked conveniently into a close(ish) bar or restaurant – feeding and watering ourselves in a manner that we felt appropriate for the hours before the ‘strongest typhoon in history’ was set to make land fall near to us. The arrival time had now been pushed back to 4am.

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The little lanterns that swing from most establishments glowed in the rain. Bathing Hoi An in a warm, wet orange glow. The town was winding down. The weather was winding up. The rain began to pour. The busiest person in the town was the little old lady selling water proof ponchos. We brushed her off with a slightly false sense of bravado, but had to go crawling back as the rain intensified.

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We stopped for dinner in one of the last restaurants that seemed to be open. We were welcomed warmly, enjoyed our ‘last supper’ and were almost immediately asked to leave. The owner, a fierce looking sharp nosed matron, stood beside the large table of French customers who had arrived after us. Her arms crossed, the glare intensifying with every bottle of red wine that was ordered. They would do well to make it to Haiyan.

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Back at the hotel the staff scoffed at our plans of any kind of onward travel the next day. Minh Anh’s fligt had also been cancelled. It would make things awkward but I wasn’t adverse to the idea of being stranded somewhere. We sat and drank rum and played cards as the night developed. When we went to bed it had been raining heavily for hours. With the proximity to the river, I was fully expecting to be wadding, or perhaps swimming out in the morning.

I woke in the night to a pounding wind battering the hotel. The shutters rattled violently, but the clamps that had been secured held firm.

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I peered out of the window with more than a little excitement in the morning. It looked like nothing worse than a raining March day in England. The town was wet, but undamaged. The river had held its banks, and its size. Haiyan had turned during the night. Minh Anh and I laced up our ponchos and headed out for a walk around the town.

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The rain was still crashing down, but the Hoi An was coming to life. Sandbags were being removed, shops were opening. Life was moving on. And so were we. After a quick call to the train station we discovered that all trains were running on time today. We packed our bags and regrettably left Hoi An. It was a strange anti-climax. We had expected a rough ride, but in the end it was just a little bumpy. I say this as visitor to the town, and not a local probably counting their blessings that Haiyan had missed their lives.

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We spent a wet afternoon in Da Nang, sheltering form the rain in a small hotel adjacent to a hospital. The two had obviously been one. Our hotel carried a sad, musky echo as we made our way down the bleak corridors – to our room – which was exactly how you would expect a hospital room converted to a hotel room to be.  I was certain people had died here. As too may have done the old man sitting in a wheel chair outside one of the rooms. Unquestionably the most depressing hotel I have ever visited.

Minh Anh left us for the train north. Ours was later in the night, so we looked for a place to eat. Walking any great lengths was out of the question. The levels of rain had reached, and passed apocalyptic levels. We settled on ‘Tam’s Pub and Surf Shop’, which came with the impressive boast of best burger in town – maybe even in Vietnam. Our taxi driver navigated us through the rain, over the bridge – and back on the road which had led us to Hoi An. We skirted along the sea, still writhing angrily and stopped outside a small house. A  sign announced this was the location. The door handles remained untouched. We sat motionless in the car. The house appeared to have just a few plastic tables and chairs within it. The street was deserted except for this rather odd scene unfolding.  As the prime ‘suggester’ I began to have that feeling of putting all your eggs in one basket – then tripping, falling, and hurling said basket off a cliff. A woman came out, urging us to come in. A mixture of hunger, embarrassment and the pleading eyes of our host forced us out of the car.

Tam sat us down at one of the only two free tables. Nudging a tiny kitten out of the way

“Storm orphans” she gestured down the corridor where a series of tiny cats where attempting high jumps of impressive Olympic proportions. We sat and ordered a burger and a beer each. The room was fascinatingly decorated with pictures of people. Many had the grainy look of the 60’s or 70’s; some had Tam in, standing next to American GIs. Some had obviously been sent to her from abroad. I found myself staring at pictures taken of young men in green uniform, standing next to enormous helicopters. Next to it, the same person but in a suit – their face showing the age of the thirty years difference. It was one of the strangest, yet of life rooms I think I have ever been in.

Tam brought us the finest burgers I have eaten in Vietnam. She picked up a rogue kitten that had set its sight on Simon’s burger, flung it away – sat down – and began her story. I’m not going to tell the story here. It would be rude of me not give it its full glory – and it is a long one. I would feel I was minimizing. And I feel I should contact her first – another time perhaps. Needless to say it was the most incredible, moving, heartfelt of stories – told with a raw passion, and often a jagged sense of humor .We left two hours later in a stunned silence.

Later that night we stood in the Da Nang train station. A barely audible muttering on the loudspeaker was heard. The woman sitting next to the departures board lazily leaned over and wiped away our train’s departure time – replacing it with a time ten minutes later. At departure time, a group of people; loosely described as a line began to form – everyone wearily boarded the train. We were soon tucked into bed for the night.

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The line between Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City does not quite have the spectacular scenery as the first leg. The sea rolls into few now and again, the landscape becomes more parched as the temperatures rises. We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City at 3pm., and after a quick taxi ride we arrived at our hotel. I was taken aback by just how westernized Ho Chi Minh City was in comparison to Hanoi. It felt more like Bangkok than the capital to the north. The night went past in a blur of deeply alcoholic drinks. We stopped at the Carabelle, for no other reason than its historical importance. The view from the bar was sublime. Unfortunately they trotted out the most appalling   Latin American YMCA esque excuse for music –  frankly, so bad it was offensive.

Morning broke – in one of those painful way, when you’re not quite sure if you’re about to die or not. I staggered downstairs into the restaurant for breakfast. All eyes seem to stare at the scruffy wretch who had just wandered in – possibly off the streets. I back-tracked quickly – terrified, and wandered up to Simon’s room to rally the troops. All together we just about made it.

With a raging hangover seemly rotting me from the inside out, I thought it best to skip the war crimes museum. Simon and I instead opted for a late morning karaoke session.

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“Uh, we want a karaoke bar” we mumbled to the receptionist. She stared at us for a moment.

“Just karaoke?” her eyes narrowed slightly. We nodded enthusiastically – completely missing the rather seedier element she had been hinting at.

Twenty minutes later we sat downstairs at the establishment – waiting for ‘our room’. The room consisted of a long sofa, and a large television.

“Two cognac and cokes” Simon declared to a man who may have been a waiter. Moments later the young man returned with two cans of coke, and a bottle of cognac. We didn’t want to embarrass the boy by pointing out the mistake – so we did the noble thing and drank ourselves through the entire bottle.

The following two hours were stupendous. People may doubt that two heterosexual men can have so much fun in a small karaoke room, with nothing more than two microphones and a bottle of cognac.  I beg to differ. There may have even been speeches at one point. We reserved Hey Jude for our final glorious encore, and as the final notes rang out, our score flashed onto the screen. We had finally achieved the elusive 100% – and celebrated wildly. One of the great moments in life – honestly. 

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