In Hong Kong there is no such thing as cheap living. If you eat at local street hawkers, avoid all tourist attractions and abandon your most basic requirements of cleanliness, comfort and peace when choosing your lodgings, you can survive on an exorbitant HK $150 (AUS $40) per day. Luckily the tattered remains of my pre-Asia hygiene standards had finally flat lined somewhere in Java and I was more than content to check into a dingy hostel at the nightmare-inspired accommodation ghetto that is Mirador Arcade for a mere HK $60 (AUS $15) per night.
Mirador Arcade and its nearby sibling Chunking Mansions are like nothing I've seen. These two high-rise fire traps rise above the drug dealers, pimps and dumbstruck tourists who lurk in the seedy Tsim Shat Sui district and stand as the last beacon of hope for cash-strapped backpackers, Filippino housemaids, Indian touts and almost anybody else who's come to Hong Kong with dollars in their eyes but none in their pockets. Within the maze of rat-infested, urine-scented and dirt-encrusted corridors of Mirador Arcade lies a thriving mini-metropolis of restaurants (your choice of Indian, Indian, or Indian), hairdressers, market stalls and most importantly cheap hostels. You may be crammed into a ventilation-free broom closet - sorry, dorm room - with fourteen other hapless residents, but at least you can afford to eat the next day (your choice of cheap Indian, cheap Indian, or cheap Indian).
One of the stranger sights in Hong Kong, this market specialised in selling aquarium fish of all colours to satisfy the apparently voracious appetites of Hong Kong's budding aquaculturalists. Enlarge »
Unfortunately most of my time in Hong Kong was spent trying to figure out how to spend as little money as possible, which ultimately meant spending as little time outside my hostel as possible while getting to know the other travellers.
One of them was of particular interest. Peter was a 65-ish Brit who grew up in rural England before moving to South Africa and joining the army in Capetown. He served there for a few years before embarking on a life-long journey that would see him trek, climb, motorbike, sail, and fly through every continent and travel to almost every country on earth. With a wry manner of speech that would have made Oscar Wilde proud, razor-sharp wit and a lifetime of experience, Peter was a fascinating person to talk to. He was also, as I quickly discovered, the most bigoted, alcoholic, narrow-minded, racist and arrogant man I'd ever had the displeasure of meeting.
Of course Peter didn't give me the dignity of being called by my name. No, to Peter I was his "Australian towel-headed friend".
But at least I was in the good company of "the Candian Scheister", "the New York poofter" and the "Argentinean Dego" who also shared the dorm. In fact I'd be surprised if there was single ethnic or minority group that escaped the wrath of Peter's acidic tongue and his nightly drunken rants.
In Hong Kong there is no such thing as cheap living ... but luckily the tattered remains of my pre-Asia hygiene standards had finally flat lined somewhere in Java
At first I just ignored him like everybody else in the dorm. But as anybody who's met me for more than five minutes would know, I can't resist a verbal challenge for long. So over the next few nights I argued with Peter for hours on end; I even had the audacity to suggest at one stage that the white race was not inherently superior (Peter was mortified). Our nightly verbal slanging matches, held on the dormitory's balcony under the muggy Hong Kong sky, and helped along by copious amounts of cheap local beer, became somewhat of a spectator sport among the other residents. Each night we'd end the same way: agreeing to disagree and calling the other a misguided fool.
My dislike of Peter only grew over those few days, and I assumed that he's hatred of me would do likewise. I was, after all, just a "PC, left-wing idealist". But on my last night in Hong Kong he blew that assumption apart when, as we sat outside arguing the inherent value of all human life, he confided to me that he'd recently been contemplating killing himself.
"Maybe I should just throw myself over this balcony and actually make those slack Chink street-sweepers work for a change," he mused quietly, unable to resist taking a quick racial shot even when baring perhaps his darkest secret.
At first I didn't understand. Why would someone so arrogant even consider topping themselves? But as I sat there stunned and though about what he'd just said, I began to see the world though Peter's eyes. Here was a man in the 'Golden Years' of his life and what did he have to show for it? Nothing. Peter was alone, broke, living permanently in the shittiest accommodation this side of the equator and working odd jobs teaching English just so he could afford to eat, and drink away his sorrows every night. He was half the world away from his beloved England without a cent to his name and the closest thing he had to companionship was the constant stream of twenty-something backpackers who did nothing but dismiss him as a racist, senile fool.
The food in Hong Kong is great, but like everything else in the city it's prohibitively expensive. Instead I'd buy cheap 2-minute noodles and eat them at hawker stalls hoping to achieve the same effect. It didn't work. Enlarge »
He might have been the loneliest man on Earth.
It's hard to know what to say to a suicidal person in any circumstance, but when you can't think of a single thing they have to live for, and you truthfully don't think the world would miss them that much if they went ahead with it, that task becomes much, much harder.
I tried to counsel him as best I could and cheer him up, but I'm sure it sounded like pathetic, clichéd tripe. And as I climbed into bed that night and glanced out at him sitting on the balcony with a now empty bottle of cheap whiskey in his hand and humming some to himself tune that I couldn't identify, I honestly didn't know whether he'd be alive in the morning.
Thankfully he was, but I've no idea if that's still the case today.
By this stage I'd seen most of Hong Kong's main sights (Victroria Peak, countless markets, a stroll through the CBD and even a day trip to the old-Portuguese colony of Macau) and my wallet was screaming for salvation from the horrors of the city's expenses, so I decided it was time to move on. My original plan was to head to Guilin, Yangshou and Kunming in beautiful south-west of China, but my unexpectedly long stay in Hong Kong meant that I'd now have to rush to Vietnam directly.
You keep telling yourself that you're in a China, but your eyes and ears seem adamant that somehow you've landed right in the middle of Lisbon, Portugal. Enlarge »
Nearly forty hours, eight buses, three trains, one meal of dog soup (it's a long story), two mini-buses, a plane, a ferry, a motorbike taxi, a bajaj (motorised rickshaw) and a whole lotta walkin' later I made it to Hanoi, wondering whether the AUS $100 I'd saved by going overland justified the two days of hell I'd just endured. Exhausted, and in desperate need of a shower, I checked into a dormitory for 30,000 VND per night (AUS $4) in Hanoi's Old Quarter and slept for a whole day.
Hanoi is a postcard photographer's dream. Whichever way you look, you're confronted by sights that inevitably make you smile, shake your head and just marvel in how different everything is. Women dressed in the traditional ao dai outfits roam the bustling streets of the Old Quarter selling everything from noodle soup to live chickens out of the wicker baskets suspended from their shoulders by a bamboo pole. Shy toddlers peer out of doorways and giggle at the sight of confused foreigners trying to find their away around the labyrinth of alleys and side-streets. Craggy-faced seniors knowingly survey the neighbourhood activity from stools placed in the doorways to run-down houses, muttering softly to each other, occasionally letting out a chuckle and taking drags from a communal opium pipe. Vietnamese children somehow manage to find enough space amid the milling crowds to play a game similar to hackeysack with a home made shuttlecock, and you occasionally catch the sound of their laughter over the constant, chaotic symphony of shouts, motorbike horns and engine revs that pound you day and night. Stretches of markets stalls brimming with local fruits, fish and breads extend the length of neighbourhoods, while basket weavers ride the streets on bikes, having somehow managed to precariously attach a shop's-worth of merchandise to either side of their seats, making them look like comically oversized, wicker armadillos.
And through it all you notice the unmistakable warmth that South East Asians effortlessly radiate - a welcome change from the undeniably cold and gruff Chinese - and the underlying elegance and quiet confidence that I'd attribute to the strong French influence in the country. Sights such as two beret-capped, elderly Vietnamese men sitting at benches, hunched over cups of coffee and a croissant are not uncommon, and each morning you can buy freshly baked French pate-filled baguettes from the army of vendors who fill the streets.
Whichever way you look, you're confronted by sights that inevitably make you smile, shake your head and just marvel in how different everything is.
In fact it didn't take long for me to be seduced by the laid-back, understated charm of Hanoi. Insulated by its role as a Communist capital from the seedy, fast-paced lifestyle that the Americans brought to Saigon and other cities in the south , Hanoi is quiet, confident and beautiful. Unfortunately it was also surprisingly cold. Having sent home all my cold-weather gear from Hong Kong, I was not prepared for the unseasonable weather that greeted me in north Vietnam.
Desperate for some warmth, I decided to sacrifice a trip to the hill tribes of the north-west and head south. But to where? For the first time since I began my trip I had no concrete plans, no flight deadlines and no clue. Finally I wrote down six random destinations on a bar napkin, borrowed a some dice from two Backgammon-playing travellers, and rolled.
Hoi An it was.
Hoi An is a small town that's played a big part in Vietnam's history. Unfortunately I haven't been here long enough to figure out what that part was. In fact in the three days I've been here I've only spent a few hours in the city itself.
You see on my arrival in Hoi An I decided to rent a motorbike. Now I realise that I've never driven a motorbike before, and I appreciate that my normal driving skills are often laughed at, but all of these considerations evaporated when I imagined myself cruising through the countryside with the wind in my hair, etc, etc, etc.
These primary school children were on their lunch break when I passed by their school near Hue. The kid was tussling with his mates to make sure he was at the front of the shot perhaps because he was keen to show off his hot pink Dolce & Gabana cap. Enlarge »
After a free twenty-minute crash course in the finer points of motorcycle driving from a local who couldn't speak a word of English (the apparently hilarious sight of me lurching about on the bike as I tried to change gears seemed payment enough) I was deemed road-worthy and told to hit the streets. Luckily Vietnam's only two road rules, in the absence of traffic lights, lane markings and sealed roads are easy to follow: 1) Small gives way to big; and 2) When two vehicles are similar in size, the one with the loudest horn has right of way.
Considering the sheer insanity of Vietnamese driving and my absolute incompetence behind the wheel, I'm surprised I didn't do myself any damage the first day. In fact apart from a rather close encounter with a water buffalo that I almost drove into at 30 km / hour, my first motorbike experience was a relatively peaceful one.
Over the next two days I packed up and hit the road, driving through villages and towns that only see foreigners as the go past in a luxury tour bus. Every time I stopped to get my bearings I'd inevitably attract a crowd of curious locals who'd gather around and just stare. I could've sat there for hours doing nothing but picking my toenails and I don't think they would have tired of the sight. Every so often a kid, usually a boy, would run up and pull the hairs of my legs, arms or goatee in fascination before running nervously away… apparently body hair is an alien concept to the smooth-skinned Vietnamese.
Seeing the country like this, on my own and as I please, and being free from the limitations of local transport, touts and the rush to get to the next destination is a welcome change for me. Until now my break-neck pace has meant I've had to rush around 'seeing the sights' in each country, without any time left to get away from the bacpacker's trail. But now, with my only real remaining deadline being the start of Uni next March, I can do as I please. And I'm loving it.
I'd inevitably attract a crowd of curious locals ... I could've sat there for hours doing nothing but picking my toenails and I don't think they would have tired of the sight.
I've decided to axe India and Nepal, which I would've had to rush through in one month, from the end of my trip and instead slow down, chill out, and just float aimlessly from Vietnam, to Laos, then Thailand, and maybe even Cambodia. So what if I don't see every monument, temple and pagoda? So what if I don't leave with a detailed understanding of post-colonial Laos politics? That's not what I came for.
I've finally (and somewhat belatedly after two and a half months in seven countries) come to the realisation that I shouldn't be using travel as a means of getting from sight to sight on some backpacker's checklist, but should instead be discovering the joys and sights that come from simply travelling itself.
And I'm loving it.