Culture Vulture

Hitting home with travel writing

The genre can take flight here, but it first has to include personal stories

8am: Rush hour, Ho Chi Minh City.

I park my bum on a small plastic chair and order tea. It arrives in dainty chinaware and smells of jasmine, bitter notes going down the throat. Steps away, an old banh mi seller in a floral blouse stands at her portable stove, grilling meat.

Here, at this roadside coffee shop, scooters flow by in a never-ending stream. Two men dismount and order iced Red Bull. They go over invoices and contracts at the next table. The proprietress hurries to shift the beach umbrellas, keeping us in the shade as the sun progresses across the sky.

I scribble in my notebook - story ideas, random thoughts, sketches. Back home, I know I will have to make sense of these notes, these images. Will have to figure out what I have come to Saigon to find and whether I have found it.

For the past couple of months, I have been part of the National Library Board's travel writing and mixed-media mentorship programme called P L A C E S. (The spaces between the letters, I think, are deliberate - imaginative margins of the known and elbow room as we make our way through the world.)

It is mentored by writer Boey Kim Cheng and artist Anngee Neo and about 20 of us applied to create travel pieces for an upcoming anthology. Most weekends, we meet at Tampines Regional Library - itself eye-opening travel for this non-Tampines resident - the area's spanking-new Hub has to be seen to be believed. There, we examine classic examples of travel writing: Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia, Paul Theroux's The Great Railway Bazaar, William Dalrymple's City Of Djinns and Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard, among others.

We doodle character maps, make collages and write accounts of trips we took. We read one another's work and suggest how to make each piece stronger. We revise our drafts. Think of original artwork to go with our words.

I haven't drawn anything since primary school, but under Anngee's tutelage, I produce a passable drawing of a Kyoto souvenir, a pouch printed with fortune cats. And while I have written travel stories in the past, Boey led us in thinking about the travel book as a literary narrative, a document that digs deeper into history, politics, society and, ultimately, the individual's quest.

Singaporeans are well-poised to take on and redefine travel writing as a genre. We have a world-class airport. Budget airlines connect us all over Asia and beyond, further democratising tourism.

Singapore writers have long experimented with the form - from Boey's poems in Clear Brightness; to poet-photographer Marc Nair's Spomenik, a collection of images and poems of the Balkans; to The Adopted: Stories From Angkor by Heng Siok Tian, Phan Ming Yen, Yong Shu Hoong and Yeow Kai Chai.

A quick survey of my mentorship-mates' projects reveals a startling diversity of travel experiences: trips to Chiangmai to train in the art of massage, travelling solo by train in India, a Himalayan journey, a pilgrimage to Mecca, and a different sort of pilgrimage to the final resting place of singer Teresa Teng in Taiwan.

Still, in the age of drool-worthy social media travel pictures, the proliferation of information on travel blogs and trip review websites, what is the relevance of travel writing? Why take time to polish text accounts that risk being out of date by the time they are published?

The answer has to go beyond the mere transfer of knowledge: Go here, sleep there, eat this, do that. Travel writing, if it has to compete with the sheer volume of content that is being generated in the world about the world, has to do with personal stories. Stories of who we are when we are away and how the act of being away transforms us.

They are ultimately stories of home.

A beautiful Vietnamese woman once said to me: "Why do you always have to take a position? You don't need to constantly take a position."

At the time, I felt beleaguered by her question. Saw it as an attack, a confrontation, a declaration that she disliked me - the way I over-intellectualised things or spoke my mind too freely. It was an enigmatic situation. I wanted very much to be her friend, but her calm disdain flummoxed me. Was I the combative one? Or did I err in always wanting to know where I stood, to figure out the unambiguous lay of the land? Was this a flaw or a defence mechanism from being born and bred in a small, vulnerable island?

In Saigon - "saying Ho Chi Minh City gives away that you're a stranger to the city", the same woman told me about her hometown - I do not look her up. But while here, I read Viet Thanh Nguyen's novel, The Sympathizer. Following the nuanced and conflicted fictional confession of a half-French, half-Vietnamese man, a Eurasian mistaken for "Amerasian", a Communist-at-heart working undercover in the American-supported government in the South, I begin to see how in flux identity and life can be in this country. How the relative stability of mine could seem arrogant, calcifying and unyielding.

The energy of Saigon, its chaos and grace, strikes me as somehow noble. Back home, I would have turned up my nose at what I deem the blatant chasing of material success and creature comforts. I look at the men discussing business over coffee and the riders rushing off to work and admire their post-doi moi gumption.

At the street cafe, a woman plonks herself down next to me, a plate of grilled pork rice in hand. Before I can offer, she reaches out for the teapot on our table and pours herself a glass. We nod politely. I drain my cup and wade back into traffic. Time to go home.

• Clara Chow is the author of Dream Storeys (Ethos) and co-editor of WeAreAWebsite.com.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2017, with the headline 'Hitting home with travel writing'. Print Edition | Subscribe