I know exactly when I will leave Vietnam. It will be the day after I realise that Vietnam no longer surprises me.
On an almost daily basis, I find something that astonishes or intrigues me about this amazing country. Simply go round any corner and chances are there is a hidden surprise to temporarily knock you off your stride. An occurrence or happenstance that you hadn’t really considered before is playing out in front of your eyes. Of themselves the circumstances can be relatively mundane, it’s the context or setting that throws you.
Recently, for example, I was standing in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil when, out of the corner of my eye, I detected something dark scuttling along the window sill. Fearing a rat was paying an unwelcome visit, I turned around for a proper look. Whatever it was was big and hiding behind some plastic bottles.
Suddenly, it come back into view. It was a crab that had escaped from a colleague’s lunch box.
Meanwhile, on the way home one night, I had a little chuckle to myself when I spied two guys on a motorbike. What was unusual was the fact the passenger was holding aloft a small metal boat. At least I assumed it was a boat, it could well have been a coffin. It was dark. It was difficult to tell in the short time they passed me by.
But my all time favourite story for illustrating the sheer surrealism of Vietnam was when me and my mate, James took a bus trip out of Hanoi to visit a pagoda. We arrived in a typical Vietnamese village that had sprung up in little clumps along the main road.
Before going into the pagoda we decided to have coffee at a roadside stall opposite. It was a lovely warm day. We could hear the birds sing. Only the occasional vehicle driving past broke the tranquility.
After a few minutes our attention was drawn to a motorbike approaching in the distance. As it got closer we could see the driver was literally riding a mobile phone cover shop. There were racks of cell phone covers completely obscuring the motorbike.
The driver waved at us cheerily. And then as he got closer he gave us a full volume blast of Peter and the Wolf through his loudspeaker. We just fell about laughing.
It was the mad juxtaposition of pagoda, coffee stall, and a classical music-playing motorbike cum phone cover shop that simultaneously tickled our funny bones. Only in Vietnam would all these elements combine into such a bizarre moment of comedy gold.
Thankfully, I have a feeling I will never get over being stopped in my tracks by Vietnam. And that makes me happy.