Into the unknown

Sometimes it takes a dose of the absurd to gain a greater appreciation of where you’re at.

By Mark Nahornick. Photos: Jason Tran on May 01,2015 07:09 AM

Into the unknown

We emerged from the bus and found ourselves in the midst of rural darkness, beside the veneer of an empty golf course, wondering where we were. They hadn’t told us anything - that was part of the charm. All we were to expect was a weekend festival, mystery and adventure, in an undisclosed location an hour out of Hanoi. I don’t know what I expected. A sign maybe. Instead, as the bus pulled away, we were received by a single Vietnamese woman who lazily pointed to a dirt path and told us to walk for 30 minutes. Half drunk, we happily obliged, stumbling our way through the blackness, a line of flashlights, feet deep in the mud.

Founded in 2013, the Quest Festival is Vietnam’s only weekend camping festival. It began as a small event, attracting just 250 people before growing to 1,000 at the last event in November. Originally located in the Son Tinh Campsite in Ba Vi, 40 km from the centre of Hanoi, organisers aimed for something different with this fourth instalment. Billed as a ‘Mystery Quest’, the premise was built on trust and experimentation, with attendees told next to nothing. You simply bought a ticket, hopped on a bus, and prayed for something magical.

We crested a hill and the festival site unfolded in the darkness, phallic sculptures and tortured heads emerging from the hilly contours of the ground amid two stages separated by a ten-minute walk across a stream and up a hill and the scattering of tents in between. I was already covered in mud. Most of us were already covered in mud. We didn’t care. We scrambled to find tents and emerged again to dance and explore the rest of the area. This was what the whole festival was about: mystery and adventure, and a slew of little Easter eggs waiting to be discovered.

As the night faded to day, lush green hills and towering limestone cliffs emerged around us. As we would come to learn, this was the land of Vietnamese experimental artist Dao Anh Khanh, situated in a valley in mountainous Hoa Binh province. The organisers had learned about the site through their friendship with him and had spent the weeks leading up to the event clearing out overgrown bush and building infrastructure. Rainy weather in the week leading up to the festival had turned much of the site into a muddy swamp and made access for vehicles delivering food and supplies difficult. We were hungry and dirty and sick of standing in line. It didn’t matter. We kept dancing.

Photo: Jason Tran

Photo: Jason Tran

Festivals and their surrounding culture have become a mainstay in much of the Western world. We deck ourselves out in ridiculous outfits, dayglow, and neon prints, and prepare ourselves for a weekend of music, art, and absurdity. For the numerous expats living in Vietnam, Quest fills an international need for such an event. Yet challenges are still abundant. Many locals are unfamiliar with the point or purpose let alone what a festival is or why they would want to hop on a bus with a bunch of crazy strangers. Yet the organisers are optimistic - responses from the Vietnamese in attendance have generally been very positive and Quest is working hard to make the event inclusive and attract a larger Vietnamese audience in the future. If Mystery Quest was an experiment, it was a successful one.

This was the formula for the weekend: sleep deprivation, dirt and sweatiness, mixed with a whole lot of dancing and adventure. Days were spent exploring and moving from workshop to workshop; there was poetry, yoga, meditation, lantern making, authentic relating, and an interactive play that took you on a seemingly acid-induced tour of the festival site, filled with dancing, music, and performance. More energetic souls hiked to a nearby waterfall and lounged their days away with nature, while some of us never truly stopped dancing. There was something for everyone, even if that just meant drinking beer and playing cards in your tent all day.

Beyond the entertainment, festivals can be a polarizing place, yet almost unequivocally, when you move past the drunken debauchery and general mayhem you seem to find something approaching spiritual. Mystery Quest was no exception. It was small, intimate, exploratory, and filled with art. It was a reflection of the weirdness that is living abroad; the characters and sensory bombardment and near dissolution of social mores. It was imperfect. It was predominantly Western and despite the importance of place, the location of place was entirely irrelevant; for all we knew, the real mystery was that with our eyes closed they had transported us to any end of the Earth. The police showed up on the second night, a trail of lights from their motorbikes announcing their approach, as if to remind us that we were still in Vietnam after all. The music stopped and we sat dazed, sweat-stained and aware of our inebriation, as they made their way to the stage, hands reaching for pockets in the dance of complicit corruption that is part of life here. I couldn’t stop laughing. It was the surrealist absurdity that is being an expat in Vietnam woven into a single moment. It was performance art. An hour later, sufficiently greased, they trailed out again, their lights flickering in the night, as the music restarted, first quiet, testing its toe in the water, making sure they had truly departed, before diving in again with a crescendo of full force.

As I made the hike back out on Sunday afternoon, seeing for the first time the landscape that I had passed in the dark, I couldn’t help but feel like Mystery Quest was a culmination of my past six months in Vietnam; that slow build-up and hesitation, toes in the water, before finally jumping in - of learning to let go and let in. When you accept the fact that you’re filthy, tired and hungry; when you accept the din, dirt, and disorder, you start to find amazing little details hidden in the chaos: the crevices in the weathered skin of a street vendor, the peeling paint and rusting tinge of elaborate gates, the gentle tranquillity of the banana plantation and the quietude of tradition, of men working in fields in the midst of a hectic city, and as you learn to step back, an appreciation of the orchestra of life weaving in and out and all around. Hanoi and Mystery Quest are both about the experience; that exploration and realm of possibility lingering on the horizon. I’m finally learning to accept Vietnam for all it is, equal parts infuriating and aggravating. The lesson is simple: when you plunge into the unknown and surrender yourself to your surroundings, incredible things start to happen. That’s the real mystery.

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