First published January 2024 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
Tom Divers is the founder and creator of Vietnam Coracle. He’s lived, travelled and worked in Vietnam since 2005. Born in London, he travelled from an early age, visiting over 40 countries (he first visited Vietnam in 1999). Now, whenever he has the opportunity to make a trip, he rarely looks beyond Vietnam’s borders and his trusty motorbike, Stavros. Read more about Tom on the About Page, Vietnam Times and ASE Podcast.
Welcome to this special edition of my supporters-only ‘Bonus Written Content’. Usually only available to paying members of Vietnam Coracle, ‘Bonus Written Content’ is a monthly post in which I write either a short, impressionistic, on-the-spot sketch from a moment during my travels and life or a brief reflection on something I’ve been thinking about.
MY GREEN HOODIE:
The Origin Story of a Piece of Clothing I’ve Worn for 20 years
On the northern Mongolian steppe, in 2004, I was 21 years old, travelling alone and about to depart on a multi-day horseback trek into the mountains with a small group of people I’d known for 24 hours. It was a crisp morning with the pale sunlight falling on the barren steppe. Our horses jostled restlessly, exhaling clouds of vapour into the clear air. We were about to depart from Nature’s Door, a pioneering adventure travel lodge established by a family friend in a remote part of northern Mongolia. The nearest town was Mörön.
I had never ridden a horse and had not come prepared for cold weather: my only protection from the Siberian winds, blowing across the steppe from the north, was a pair of Quicksilver jeans I’d bought in a Macy’s mall on a balmy afternoon in southern California when I was 17. I hadn’t planned to go on a horseback trek across the steppe; I’d only planned to visit Nature’s Door, do a bit of light hiking, and then travel south in a camper van to the Gobi Desert, overnighting in cosy gers, spending the days climbing sand dunes and driving across vast, empty, arid, sundrenched landscapes.
The previous evening, my fellow guests at Nature’s Door were poring over maps, checking weather reports, questioning staff and locals and planning their horseback ride into the wilderness. I watched and listened to the preparations from afar, but had no intention of joining in. Sitting by the fire that night, a young woman came over and sat with me. I’d noticed her in the lodge over the last day or two: confident, fit, outgoing, attractive – she looked like she belonged in the adventure travel context; she was at ease. Basking in the warmth of the fire, she told me about her own experience on a horseback trek she’d just returned from. Over the course of the evening, Anne-Sophie convinced me – and the group – that I should join them.
I scrounged everything I could – clothes, food, equipment – but I was still underprepared and out of my depth. With the horses bridled and packed with our supplies, we awaited our Mongolian guide to arrive and start us on the ride. A minivan pulled up, the door opened and Anne-Sophie jumped out, gave me a green sweatshirt – “You’ll need this” – hugged me and disappeared in a cloud of red dirt as her vehicle sped across the grassland to begin its 24-hour journey back to Ulaanbaatar. It was a dark green, Champion brand, hooded sweatshirt. Thick, heavy and bulky, this was by far the warmest item of clothing I had with me for the horseback trek.
Knowing that I was underequipped, I made an effort to stay warm: I did sprints each time we stopped and dismounted the horses, and I was careful not to wear all my layers of clothing before the evening came. But, during the first night, my tent had a tear, allowing the cold air to enter. I hardly slept at all. The next day I was tired, weak and hadn’t the physical or mental energy to make the necessary effort to stay warm. Mongolian saddles are notoriously hard – mine had bored into my inner left thigh, making every canter a painful experience. The next day I got worse: the cold had entered me and taken up residence – I couldn’t shake it; I was possessed by a constant feeling of cold, until I essentially gave up. One time, my horse passed beneath a low branch and I didn’t even bother to duck: it hit me square in the head and I came off the horse. My fellow travellers – a group of men in their twenties and thirties from North America and Western Europe – were concerned and kind. We stopped and sat in a circle. Our Mongolian guide smiled knowingly as he looked at my face and waved his hand, “No, no, no!” he said calmly and with an ominous chuckle.
We were two days’ ride from Nature’s Door and I couldn’t return alone: if I went back, then the whole group must go too, because there was only one guide and there were no roads, paths, signs or maps to follow. That night around the fire, the group gave me any food and clothes that they could spare, and they decided we would all return the next day, abandoning the horse trek that they had been planning for days in advance and had travelled thousands of miles across the world to do – from San Francisco, Paris, Toronto, Stockholm and Dublin. From the first evening onwards, I had worn the green hoodie and never taken it off: it was my only effective line of defence against the cold, and it was probably the only thing that kept me from becoming hypothermic.
Unsurprisingly, despite some effort on my part, we did not stay in touch after the horseback trek. But I did stay connected with Anne-Sophie. We met again, months later, in a snowy Vienna in November. Later, she moved to Shanghai to pursue her photography career. I still have her green hoodie. Indeed, I still wear it, even today, 20 years later. In 2005, I moved to southern Vietnam where the tropical climate renders cold weather clothes totally useless, except for trips to the Central Highlands, where the altitude causes temperatures to tumble, especially at night. For all these years, I have kept the green hoodie in my wardrobe in Saigon precisely for such occasions. Each Christmas/New Year, I travel to the Central Highlands to camp out in the pine forests with my friends, where, once again, the green hoodie is my line of defence against the cold. It was while packing for my camping trip this year, that I suddenly realized and appreciated the longevity of my green hoodie and the story behind it, connecting countries, people and events.