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 Jessica Mudditt' Jessica Mudditt'

Discover the exhilarating journey of backpacking through the vivid narrative of Jessica Mudditt's latest book, "Once Around The Sun." From the gritty authenticity of $2 hostel rooms to the unforgettable experiences of sipping Coca-Cola from plastic bags and sampling exotic delicacies like duck fetus, Mudditt's storytelling captures the raw essence of travel. Here is an edited excerpt from her captivating chapter, "Hanoi Hustle,"

I stood stock still on the edge of the pavement as swarms of motorbikes whizzed past me in a blur of noise and colour. The sheer number of them was staggering. They ducked and weaved past one another without staying in a lane or heeding a red light – nor did the cars, bicycles or buses competing for space. There were so many horns honking at the same time that it almost blended into one long continuous honk, with orchestral backup from trilling bicycle bells and the guttural chug of diesel engines. I watched in disbelief as a motorbike carrying a father and his three kids cut across the traffic in a perpendicular direction.

I’d been standing there like a fool for five minutes while I tried to psyche myself up to cross the road. Trying to judge when there was an adequate break in the traffic was making my heart pound and my hands clammy, because there was no actual break. Yet no one else appeared flustered by the chaos. Many of the commuters wore smog masks, but the faces I could see looked positively serene.

Just do it.

I took a couple of tentative steps out onto the road and almost had my foot run over by a motorbike that came up on my left. The driver swerved just in time and I leaped back onto the pavement.

I can’t do it.

A wave of panic passed through me. My trip had literally come to a standstill, a hundred metres from my guesthouse in Hanoi.

Another couple of minutes passed, and then I hit upon an idea. When a young woman near me started to cross the road, I slipped into step with her. She ventured out into the traffic slowly but steadily, and at no point did she ever stop. This was an important first lesson: my instinct had been to dart onto the road, kamikaze style.

We reached the other side without incident and the young woman disappeared into the sea of people on the footpath, perhaps oblivious to the fact that I had been shadowing her. I was buoyed by the small achievement and decided to continue with the walking tour mapped out by my Lonely Planet after buying a ticket for the water puppet show that night.

I was back on the sidewalk with my head in my guidebook when a street hawker approached and started barking at me to buy a bunch of her bananas. She was wearing loose-fitting pyjamas and a conical hat. No wonder she wanted to offload some of the ripe yellow fruit – she was carrying two huge baskets of them on the ends of a bamboo shoulder pole.

‘You take them,’ she commanded.

Not knowing what to do, I swung around to face the other way and walked as quickly as I could without breaking into an actual jog for the sake of my dignity. I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard no further entreaties from the woman and assumed the heavy load slowed her down. I kept walking a little more just to be sure, and then took a seat on a low plastic stool at a food stall. I had the most incredible iced coffee in a long glass as I took in my atmospheric surrounds.

Hanoi’s historic Old Quarter was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Every inch of space was occupied along its narrow streets, which criss-crossed an area that had served as a commercial hub for a thousand years.

The bolthole stores seemed endless. Merchandise spilled out onto the pavement beside the parked scooters, was strung up from the awnings and stacked in tall piles. The apartments above the shops were a jumble of architectural styles: boxy flats with reflective glass windows were crammed in next to colonial-era buildings with peeling, butter-coloured paint; their French windows flung open and wispy plants growing out of ornate crevices. Even the birds were busy: sparrows fluttered from the branches of gnarled old trees to the thick web of powerlines and back again.

An old man pedalled past me with an enormous load of blue containers strapped to his bicycle. Then came a beat-up old car that cruised by at a snail’s pace. It only just managed to squeeze through the narrow lane, but no one raised an eyebrow at its audacity.

Once around the sun book cover

Hanoi immediately struck me as a marvellous but intense city. As I zigzagged my way through the Old Quarter that morning, hawkers presented me with a dizzying array of consumer goods: t-shirts featuring Tintin and the red Vietnamese flag with its single yellow star, lipsticks, sunglasses, watercolour prints of rice paddies, smoking pots of food, musical instruments and counterfeit Rolexes.

I wanted to buy a couple of the things I was offered, but I was too intimidated to begin bargaining on my first day in the country. I hadn’t got my head around the colourful new currency of dong that was sitting in my wallet.

One Australian dollar was equal to about 13,000 dong, and my thirteen times tables were non-existent. The idea of using a calculator was laughable: it would expose me as easy prey for a massively inflated starting price.

After a lady selling war-propaganda posters came so close to my face that I had to wipe away little flecks of spit when she left, I took temporary refuge in a Buddhist temple.

I entered it by crossing an elegant arched bridge, underneath which was a pond filled with koi. A lacquered white horse stood in the centre of the temple, which was flanked by enormous burgundy pillars. Small groups of people were praying in front of the grinning horse, and there were bouquets of dandelions and plates of green bananas left in front of it as offerings.

Bunches of smoking incense sticks gave off a pleasant sandalwood scent. I wandered about the well-tended gardens, with massive pots of bonsai and topiary in the shape of birds and squirrels.

But no sooner had I returned to the street than a particularly persistent street hawker started trailing me. It was a big mistake to initially show interest in the t-shirt he offered me, which was emblazoned with the name of a movie I loved, Good Morning, Vietnam.

I started to walk away, but the hawker darted in front of me. He was waving his arms while insisting his t-shirts were the cheapest in Hanoi. He seemed inexplicably angry with me: it wasn’t so much an offer to buy from him as an accusation of failing to do so. I noticed that his face was twitching and I felt a bit uneasy. I tried to discourage him by saying that purple didn’t suit me.

‘What colour do you want? I have every colour,’ he replied, and whipped out ten different shades in clear plastic packaging.

I had run out of excuses. ‘I’ll take the black one,’ I said weakly.

Serene Laos felt like a distant memory. I ached to be back walking its sleepy streets.

Jessica Mudditt is a journalist and author of two memoirs, Once Around the Sun and Our Home in Myanmar. are available at all good bookstores.



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