The Old Normal
© Copyright 2021 by Aditi Neelakantan
I had only recently discovered the joy of travelling. Interestingly, my favorite part was the anticipation and endless fantasizing that comes with planning a trip, rather than actually being at the destination itself. The past few months had been trying - the exams of my final year of medical school were steadily approaching and I seemed to have found the perfect stress relief. I spent every moment of my free time researching the places we would be going to, the kinds of foods we would be eating, and I would immerse myself in the country’s history and culture. I couldn’t get enough of it. It may seem counterproductive to engage in this sort of information overload but it was my anchor; it kept me from sinking into the abyss of depression and stress eating that were the usual side effects of intense studying.
We reached Ho Chi Minh, more commonly called Saigon, in the early hours just as the sun rays were shyly peeking at us through the glass windows, as if a child watching first time guests entering his house. We took a bus to our AirBnB. I felt so smug knowing the bus numbers and routes in an alien country, and gleefully thought about how much money we could save on this trip, thanks to my research. Luck favors the prepared. Also, I hadn’t started earning just yet and this trip was being sponsored by Akka so I wanted to do my part in being as inoffensive as I possibly could be to her savings account.
We spent our afternoon roaming around District 1, the most touristy district in Saigon. As we walked around, interestingly, there were posters of a very distinct rat in tones of gold and red displayed in many of the shops. Ew. I hated rats.
As we made our way to a quaint little café around the corner from our AirBnB, I habitually checked my messages. I gasped. My exam results were out! I could feel beads of perspiration starting to form, eagerly clinging on to the back of my dress. My Surgery practical had gone quite disastrously and I didn’t want this lovely country to be the center stage of my emotional breakdown.
I just won’t check it, I thought to myself. We were only here for a week after all; I could get back home and deal with it then. I didn’t want this vacation to be ruined! I dramatically paced back and forth on the streets, overwhelmed by the battle going on between the opposing voices in my head.
Akka exclaimed, “Rip the band-aid off!”, breaking my reverie. She had been patiently watching me for the past 10 minutes and wanted the drama to end. I’m going to do it. My shaky hands clicked on the result button and I closed my eyes.
When I opened them, I saw the letters PASSED appear as I almost passed out.
OH MY GOSH! I’M OFFICIALLY A DOCTOR! This was the biggest achievement of my life! I did a little happy dance on the street. This day was getting better and better.
We wandered around for the next hour. We decided not to use the GPS; we wanted to see where our instincts would lead us. The streets were getting crowded. We headed right into a throng of people and were transported to a massive arena. It was the biggest carnival I had ever seen! There were easily a thousand other people with us. The place was entirely decorated with fairy lights; balloons and pennants in every possible color danced merrily in the wind. More than 200 stands were on display. A delicious aroma of spices, incense and sugar coyly teased our nostrils.
Yet again, I saw pictures of that very distinct rat all around us. ‘Mung Xuan, Mung Dan 2020’ a huge poster read. A few moments of Googling later, we discovered that it was the Chinese New Year! And 2020 happened to be the year of the rat, one of the signs of the Chinese Zodiac; it symbolized fertility and wealth. OHHHHHHH. Finally, an explanation.
What a wonderful coincidence! I felt so privileged to witness this celebration first hand.
“This didn’t come up in your research, huh?”, Akka sniggered. I made a face at her while internally chastising myself for not knowing about this.
If you asked me now what or where this place was, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I just know it was somewhere around a building with the word ‘Sunwah’ on it. We’d been in the right place at the right time. I’m glad we had listened to our internal GPS.
We spent a couple of hours walking about the area. There was so much to do, so much to see, so much to eat! With a light heart and a considerably lighter wallet, we headed back to our room. This day had been perfect.
Later that night we were on the phone with our parents. Our dad had been watching the news - some sort of flu was making the rounds in China apparently. “Be careful, wear a mask,” he commanded. We weren’t worried though; I was a doctor now after all.
Nevertheless, we were good kids and stopped by a pharmacy the following morning. A board outside displayed ‘MASKS OUT OF STOCK’ in large letters. Interesting.
We went to another one, and they only had three masks remaining. We bought them all.
As we moved on to our next destination, Hoi An - thoughts of this flu were replaced by beaches, bicycles and Banh Mi.
I was most excited for the latter. I squealed every time we passed by a Banh Mi stall. This beautiful invention was a Vietnamese-French hybrid sandwich (although I’m convinced the Gods actually created it) and Hoi An was especially famous for them, having been praised by none other than legendary chef Anthony Bourdain. The secret lies in the water they use, I remember reading somewhere.
We went to the most popular stand, Banh Mi Hoi An, and stood in queue for around 20 minutes as I imagined what it would be like to taste this divine creation - the crunchy yet soft bread carrying chunks of tofu, rich, fatty cheese, crispy yet juicy pieces of pickled daikon and carrots with sprigs of coriander peeking through, all merrily floating in a perfectly sweet and tangy secret sauce – how all these flavors would play in glorious symphony with my taste buds. I swallowed the saliva that seemed to have involuntarily filled my mouth. It was our turn next. Banh Mi Chay, I said confidently.
Chay means vegetarian, I reminded Akka annoyingly. She took a deep breath and swallowed her impulse to punch me. The country’s Buddhist principles seemed to be rubbing off on her.
Ah coming back to this wonderful sandwich! It was an orchestral masterpiece; you can’t describe its brilliance in words, you can only experience the emotional journey it takes you through, you can feel---
“People can see you, you know,” whispered Akka scathingly, interrupting my internal monologue. I had sauce all over my face. Oops.
“Dyuwanabye?” I asked through my stuffed mouth.
“Do you want a bite?” I repeated.
“That’s okay man, you eat that.” She looked revolted.
Hoi An had been my favorite place in our entire trip. It was such a gorgeous beach town with some of the best people I had come across. I hadn’t met a more welcoming community in my life! Our language barrier seemed non-existent. There wasn’t a thing here that couldn’t be overcome by a friendly attitude, and the occasional head nod.
I’ll be back for you, I silently promised this town (or maybe the Banh Mi?), as I bid adieu to Hoi An and we headed to the Danang Airport. With a heavy heart I followed Akka inside.
“You have excessive luggage – you will be charged extra to check it in,” the man at the counter said regretfully.
“Unless…how about you wear some of your heaviest clothes and reduce the weight of your bags? That way you don’t have to pay extra!” he smiled.
Why is he making it even harder to leave?! I wept unceremoniously at his kindness. I didn’t want to say goodbye to this place!
Our last stop was the capital city, Hanoi. We were moving up north and the temperature, in the opposite direction. We would be here for four days. The corona virus finally seemed to have caught up with us. The number of people affected were steadily increasing by the hour and major containment measures had to be taken, we saw on the news. Oh boy. I felt foolish now for dismissing it. We pulled our masks out from our bag. We would be wearing these for the rest of our trip, I decided.
I noticed that the fear was starting to get to me – if someone coughed a few feet away, I would feel my throat get itchy, a sensation I would go on to experience again and again over the coming months.
Our first stop in Hanoi was to the pharmacy; we really needed to pick up some new masks. Thankfully they were still available, albeit at double price.
Our trip here was more muted, literally – the sky seemed mournful and everyone dressed in shades of blacks and greys, their faces literally masked. Maybe it was the cold - or maybe it was the shadow of the virus creeping up on us? Either way, there was something in the air, quite literally.
The highlight of our stay in Hanoi came with the promise of ‘the best view in the Vietnam’- Ha Long Bay! We headed to the nearest travel agency and met the guy in charge there – he was ecstatic upon learning that Akka and I weren’t just friends, we were sisters! I love family, he said, giving us an extra 5% discount on our cruise.
The next day we woke up at the crack of dawn, got dressed and walked to the bus that would be taking us to Ha Long Bay.
Our guide, a wonderful, lively spirit who went by Max asked us all, “Are you aware of the corona virus?”
He went on to educate us. As of today, Chinese nationals would no longer be allowed on such tours, the government had told them. Chinese borders were starting to close down.
Are we really in trouble? Is this more serious than I thought?
On our way back from Ha Long Bay, we wanted to stop by the famous night market in Hanoi.
“No no no,” Max shook his head. “It’s very crowded. Don’t go. Safety more important,” he said wisely.
We took his advice and called it a night. We had a flight to catch the following afternoon. We were going home.
As we entered the airport shuttle, someone involuntarily coughed. Everyone looked up.
We made our way inside the airport; there were 2 lines – one for those of Chinese nationality, and another for the rest of us. They needed to get back home fast; they couldn’t be stranded here. It was the beginning of the end.
This trip had been the best vacation of my life. But now as I think about it, I see it for what it really was – it was the calm before the storm, a global devastating storm of such magnitude that it overtook life as we knew it and brought with it such unmeasurable consequences - consequences we’re suffering till this very day.