Vietnam Shenanigans: The Call to Avoid

The challenge of crossing roads in Hanoi

Have you ever stood at the edge of a busy road – teetering on the pavement drop-off as motorists zoom by without a care – and felt that odd call, the sudden and overwhelming urge to simply…look left, then right, then left again, before crossing in a safe and sane manner? If so, you have felt the call to avoid. A natural instinct geared towards avoiding death as the result of an untimely collision.

While the call of the void has a lovely, somewhat morbid ring to it, for most of us acts such as crossing busy roads or navigating high places are associated with a healthy dose of caution. We are not going to go striding out with our gaze straight-ahead, content to place our lives in the hands of fate (for we all know that if fate had hands, they’d be rather shaky).

And yet, in the city of Hanoi, Vietnam, this is precisely what people do.

Ben and I arrived in Vietnam with half a plan and a whole lot of attitude. That is, we arrived sweaty, overtired and with only the vaguest idea where our accommodation was. If you have ever rented an Airbnb in Vietnam, you may be familiar with the HintHunt involved in finding your bed for the night. Once you have found the correct winding alley, committed several unintentional home invasions, asked the enigmatic security guard the right questions and decoded the lock-box found two feet to the right of the second door in the fifth building, you may – if you are lucky – find yourself in possession of a key. From there, the only thing that stands between you and the haven that is an air-conditioned room is stairs.

By the time we shed our bags and travel gear, Ben and I were in need of two things. A cold beer and a decent meal. Our plan? To take a calm amble through the streets of Hanoi until we happened upon a likely-looking establishment. How hard could it be, we figured? We are both, after all, seasoned amblers.

Thus we first encountered the challenge of crossing roads in Hanoi. We had already noticed, on our taxi trip between the airport and the Old Quarter, the cavalier attitude with which local motorists treated lane markings and stop streets. The city’s traffic seemed to operate on a principle of constant motion. Other rules of the road were more like guidelines.

The streets of Hanoi
The streets of Hanoi

Poised on the edge the pavement, we watched the steady flow of vehicles helplessly. Hooting, overtaking, one with more bricks lashed to his scooter than my limited imagination would ever have thought possible – they all possessed the kind of unrelenting purpose you would expect to see in the eyes of a hippo as you stood between it and the water.

Action had to be taken, of course. There was cold beer on the line. Both Ben and I leapt at the first sign of a gap. Being sensible people, we kept an eye on the oncoming traffic and, seeing that several motorbikes were getting quite close, we paused to let them pass.

Instant pandemonium. Motorcyclists who had predicted our trajectory now swerved violently to avoid our unexpected position – a disruption that rippled outwards. In our moment of hesitation, the gap disappeared. We were stranded in the midst of the traffic, unwilling to stay but fearful to proceed. In heeding the call to avoid we had violated the principle of constant motion, resulting in the nervous confusion of all (not least ourselves). The stop-start scramble that followed took many apologetic hand gestures and the last of our pride.

Unlike us, the local people were unbothered by the traffic. They stepped onto streets with nary a pause, eyes fixed firmly ahead. Where roads were busiest, they raised a hand above their heads so that motorists further away could see their path. Their pace was constant, their air confident, and the stream of vehicles broke effortlessly around them, as if in coordinated sequence. Each pedestrian avoided vehicles by not avoiding them at all. Rather, they allowed the vehicles to avoid them.

Old City Gate, Hanoi
O Quan Chuong: the Old City Gate in Hanoi Old Quarter

Instincts are not so easy to unlearn. Ben and I tried to imitate, but time and again the call to avoid would kick in and we would find ourselves hovering awkwardly in the middle of the road. Eventually, for the good of all involved, we settled for latching onto the nearest pedestrians and trailing in their wake like anxious Remora fish.

Later, sitting on the third floor of some Vietnamese beerhouse, cold pints in hand, we stared down at the streets below in quiet fascination. The movement of people and vehicles was no less confusing from above. We lacked the innate knowledge to make sense of it. Nonetheless, the continuous swirl of colour and activity worked. It was our way of thinking – and crossing roads – that did not quite belong.

 

 

The Old Men and the Sea

A daring tale of mild winds, curious sea life and frequent naps.

“Life is short
And pleasures few
And holed the ship
And drowned the crew
But o! But o!
How very blue
the sea is.”

― Clive Barker

I begin this post with a confession. I am not a natural-born sailor. As much as I love the idea of being a seafaring badass, the truth is that it takes me at least a day to find my sea-legs, and most of that time is spent making sure that my Foetal Position of Drowsy Discomfort does not get in anyone’s way.  Any efforts I do make to contribute are usually hindered by the fact that I have to relearn the name and purpose of every rope each time I step on board. To be fair, there are a lot of ropes. And they never seem to be in the same place.

I do love the sea, though, and once I make it past the two-day mark I am almost competent. What I lack in knowledge, I make up for in youth and enthusiasm.

While enthusiasm can be found in abundance aboard Anastasia, youth is somewhat more rare. On our most recent trip, my friend Ben and I had the dubious honour of being the only two on board below the 50-year mark. I am not ashamed to admit that our elders and betters put us to shame.

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We were participating in the Mykonos Offshore 2019, a race between Cape Town and the Club Mykonos resort in Saldanha Bay.  The starting times for the different categories of yachts were all staggered around 8am. Even with favourable winds and a good start, the race is one that can take well into the night to complete. Unfortunately, we had neither. Our only comfort as we inched our way over the starting line and across the glassy waters was that our competitors were all in the same boat. Or, well, boats.

After the first hour of tacking across the bay with agonising slowness, the elder members of our crew made the executive decision to hoist the iron topsail. With the engine fired up, we were officially out of the race. Our participation might seem embarrassingly short-lived, but choosing to motor instead of sail turned out to be a wise decision. With winds remaining frustratingly mild throughout the day, most of the other participants resorted to the same measures within a few hours.

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Decisions, decisions…

With the race abandoned, our crew quickly fell into ‘cruise mode’. Most of our time between Royal Cape and Mykonos was spent dozing, bickering or whale-spotting. We were fortunate enough to catch frequent glimpses of whales spouting and breaching. In fact, we were so fortunate that at some points we posted lookouts on the bow just in case we glimpsed some a little too close.

Whales are not the only marine wildlife to be found off this stretch of coast. The occasional sunfish or African penguin would drift past us, seemingly without a care in the world. A pod of common dolphins raced us for a while, before realising we were absolutely no competition and zooming off to find better entertainment. Everywhere we looked, we saw hints of the multitudinous life forms hiding beneath the waves.

All these encounters paled in comparison to the one we experienced as we sailed back from Mykonos to our overnight stop at Dassen Island. While cruising through the choppy waters just outside the entrance to Saldanha Bay, we found ourselves in the centre of the most enormous pod of seals any of us had ever seen (and remember, some of us had been around long enough to see more than most). There must have been thousands of them travelling along the coast, leaping and splashing such that the entire sea appeared to boil. If we were bemused to be caught in their midst, they were equally so to find us there. Many seemed to be craning their heads around mid-leap to give us affronted looks, while others showed their disapproval through excessive splashing.

 

Our overnight stop at Dassen Island was as peaceful as our seal encounter was tumultuous. Situated about 10km off the coast, and inhabited only by the area’s conservationist, the island holds a desolate beauty. The rocky shoreline boasts a few wrecks that have long since been claimed by the local bird life. Besides the lighthouse, the conservationist’s home and a small jetty, there is no development to speak of. In order to preserve this proclaimed nature reserve, none are allowed to step foot on the island without special permission. Most who visit it, like us, simply anchor in House Bay and enjoy the serenity that comes with isolated places.

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Dassen Island as seen from Anastasia
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A hearty meal

It goes without saying that we did not win, or even place in, the Mykonos race. We busied ourselves with more important things, like napping and snacking. In truth, crewing aboard the Anastasia is not the most direct route to becoming an experienced sailor. But I still find that each time I go out on her, I learn something new from the old men and the sea.

Entranced

Modern Fey Circles at Riviersonderend

Human Folklore has long held tales of fey circles. In Europe, a ring of mushrooms could be a doorway to an elfin kingdom, while the circles of red sand that emerge among the grasses of the Namib desert in southern Africa are whispered to be gathering places for fey and elvish dancers alike. Humans stepping into such circles are liable to be whisked away to a mystical realm and danced to the point of madness by the feyfolk of old. Those who escape might still find themselves lost or forgotten, for a few moments spent dancing in the fey world could be weeks or even years in the human one.

Today, of course, the explanation for such natural phenomena is far less fun, if no less interesting. There is little talk of magic circles and feyfolk anymore. People have come to accept that such things are just for myths and stories. However, if it were possible to step into the realm of the fey, I imagine it would feel something like stepping into the Circle of Dreams during the Vortex Open-source festival (December 2018).

This being my first trance festival experience, I had little idea what to expect when arriving on the scene. The landscape was still relatively empty, as we arrived a day before the festivities were set to begin, but the entire space was already infused with a sense of quiet anticipation. We used the emptiness to our advantage, setting out on a mission to find the perfect campsite. And we did so. About seven times. 

By the time we had dragged our groundsheets, bags and tents to a new spot for the last time, it was well into the night. Our final selection was motivated as much by exhaustion and an inability to figure out where the hell we had ended up as any situational advantage. As it turned out, even blind and disorientated, we were able to find a decent spot – and over the next five days it became our home in every sense of the word.

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Our campsite, Day 1

Within two days, our campsite had grown to include around fourteen people. Everyone set about making the space their own in some small way. Tables and chairs sprung up. A makeshift washing line was rigged between two trees. Fairy lights wound their way around the overhanging branches. Mugs, gas stoves and bottles of paint multiplied at an alarming rate. We formed a small, chaotic community within the larger world of Vortex. We were at once wild and charming, and underlying our every choice and interaction was the thrum of trance.

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Our campsite, Not Day 1

The music at Vortex is a peculiar thing. It takes over the entire area, holding every person a willing hostage. There is never a still moment – even back at the campsite, there would always be a tapping foot or bobbing head. At any given time, anyone could start to dance wherever they stood. There may have been two identifiable dance-floors, but the dancing hardly stopped where the floors ended. It spilled outwards among the trees and along the edge of the river, following the music that seemed to pool in every open space. With DJs playing just about constantly – for around twenty-three hours every day – it was only during the daily ‘Nature Hour’ that a semblance of silence could be found. We would usually use these silent hours as an opportunity to sleep, but even then echoes of the music found a way into our dreams.

It would be wrong to assume that music and dance is all there is to Vortex. The festival represents a curious meeting of art and nature. Whether it was the eerie blue jellyfish that acted as hanging lights over the Heartspace floor, the dream-catchers that lined the paths, the geometric cloth and string creations stretched between the trees or the neon-painted dragons that overlooked the dancing crowds, every part of the festival was a visual delight. At night, everything came alive with light. Ultra-violet caught on psychedelic patterns and faces alike, and the space seemed awash with a purple glow. It was enough to make even the most level-headed person feel as if they had slipped between dimensions and emerged somewhere Other – and we are certainly not level-headed.

During the day, we all made use of the swimming, slacklining and painting areas. Morning yoga sessions along the river bank were a common sight. People of all ages and backgrounds mingled both on and off the dance-floors, creating a fascinating tapestry of human lives and experiences. For the most part, everyone I met was friendly and engaging. From the hardcore festival-goers who looked to have cut their teeth on post-Woodstock hippie happenings, to the mercurial newcomers seeking to dabble in an idea of a lifestyle, everyone was caught up in the intrigue of the Circle of Dreams.

There is a grittier side to Vortex. Five days of camping and dancing in the mud is not for everyone – particularly when most abandon their shoes as a lost cause within the first day. The constant noise and press of people can very quickly go from captivating to overwhelming, and there are, of course, enough hallucinogens, amphetamines and other stimulants floating around to…well, to keep a trance festival of over a thousand people going for five days. Anyone who wishes to avoid exposure to such things should probably avoid attending this event. While engaging in the festivities sober is not uncommon – and can be extremely enjoyable – not everyone else will be doing the same.

That being said, for anyone who is planning to visit the Vortex Open-source festival or another like it for the first time, here are a few tips that might come in handy.

Tricks of the Trance:

  1. Don’t go alone. Preferably go as part of a group, as it adds to both the fun and security of the experience, but at the very least take a friend or two along.
  2. Take fairy lights. Because they’re lit. But also because there are thousands of tents at Vortex and having some lights strung above your site can really help you to identify it when heading back at night. 
  3. Stay cool and hydrated. It can get very hot on the the dance-floors, particularly during the day. There are sprinklers lining the floors and free water points all over. Learn where they are and use them liberally. 
  4. Take time to eat and rest every day. Vortex takes on a certain timeless quality – it is the village that never sleeps. With all the activity and stimulus, you are seldom holding to normal sleeping and eating patterns. Make new ones.
  5. Watch out when accepting water from strangers. It’s fairly common for people to offer you their bottles on the dance-floor. This is usually a friendly gesture – however, you have no way of knowing what is in other people’s water. Think twice before accepting.
  6. Sunscreen. Being burnt is very not fun. 
  7. Take time for yourself. As already mentioned, the crowds can get overwhelming at times. Take time out to swim, read, paint or just relax somewhere quieter. Five days is a long time to be constantly around other people.

One last thing that should be mentioned is how incredible the Vortex organisers are. I cannot begin to imagine what a massive undertaking it must be, planning and maintaining such an event. I certainly would not know where to start. Thanks for the amazing experience!