Banana Island: Tales of the Unexpected
Written by Lloyd Cole
I’m in the habit of managing my expectations to avoid disappointment; a useful skill, strengthened by years spent living in the torrid economic and emotional vortex that is London.
Since I started calling Vietnam my home eight months ago, I’ve felt my cynical shell being chipped away. Every backstreet phở, each lakeside coffee and all the chance encounters with overwhelmingly hospitable locals have served to make this English muffin a little less sceptical. That said, when me and a friend set off to explore Banana Island I simply hoped I might return to shore with a pocketful of potassium. As Hanoi, and Vietnam in general, has so consistently demonstrated, sometimes it’s okay to expect a little more than you bargained for.
Bãi Giữa (“Middle Island”) is a seven-kilometre spit of land situated between Long Biên and the Old Quarter. Banana Island has earned it’s fruity western nickname thanks to the staggering number of banana trees towering from what feels like almost every inch of available soil (and perhaps partly because it is home to a male nudist colony). It can be accessed by a set of steps located roughly halfway across Long Biên Bridge, or via a muddy (bike-friendly) track north-west of Yên Phụ.
My friend and I opted for Long Biên Bridge; there’s nowhere to safely park a bike on the bridge itself and only a very steep, narrow slope if you wanted to drive down, so I would recommend hitching a Grab to Long Biên Railway Station and making your way from there. The moment we set foot on the island I felt like I’d been uprooted from the hectic streets of Hanoi and planted in a fertile Choose- Your-Own-Adventure story. With only swaying banana trees as mute and lofty guides there were no clues (yet) as to which way we should go: left, right, or back on ourselves, alongside the bridge. I’ll keep the direction we pursued a secret, for fear of polluting your own adventure. I’m confident whichever part of the island you explore you’ll be sure to find something of interest, as I hope this next passage will illustrate…
After wending our way along baked, dirt tracks for about an hour, stopping occasionally to admire a particularly scenic patch of farmland or inspect a nonchalant lizard, we heard what sounded like a veritable choir of farm birds. As someone who’s never been able to resist snooping over a wall, regardless of intriguing soundscapes, I decided to take a peek. Sure enough, there were ducks, chickens, geese - even a few morose-looking turkeys - but it was the fifth feathered feature of this avian menagerie that really caught my eye; a penguin is the only bird that may have been more startling. There, bold as his beak, stood a seven-foot ostrich.
We observed the surreal scene for a few minutes before pressing on, eager to learn what other surprises the island had in store. We didn’t have to wait long. Almost immediately we were faced with a fresh curiosity: a crude smiley face, daubed on a green plastic sheet fixed to a wire fence, made all the more tantalising by a thick, black arrow indicating a divergent path. With little conference we agreed to follow the arrow and see where it led. Every hundred yards or so another sign would present itself, painted on the same ragged tarpaulin and bearing the same inscrutable markings, steering us towards… what? A hippy commune? A cannabis farm? An emoji debate club?
After following the signs for around half an hour we saw a group of people gathered in a clearing up ahead. As we drew nearer it became apparent they were wearing bibs and, rather more alarmingly, carrying semi-automatic weapons. We quickly established (thanks to my friend’s endlessly advantageous ability to speak Vietnamese) that these were not colourful insurgents; what we had found, quite by accident, was Johni Garden, a “Water Ball Paintball” (WBP) arena.
Similar to regular paintball, WBP is a tactical, close-quarters battle of wit, nerve and tremendous fun. The only difference (and marked improvement, in my opinion) is that instead of firing stinging paint projectiles at one another, ruining clothes and friendships alike, your ammunition consists of superabsorbent polymer water beads. The beads explode on impact, leaving no mark and hurting about as much as firmly drumming your fingers on the back of your hand. The combatants that day were colleagues from Elite Fitness on Xuân Diêu, engaging in a bit of light-hearted team building. They graciously invited us to join and before you could say “lock and load” we were fitted out with bibs, a weapon and a pair of snazzy goggles.
What followed was a frenetic series of skirmishes under the watchful eyes of two Johni Garden employees, who also film each round from a crow’s nest at either end of the battlefield. (These videos are posted on the Johni Garden Facebook page at a later date and are very funny to watch back!) The rules are simple: if you get shot, raise your gun over your head and walk back to your team’s base. Given that there’s no outward sign as to whether someone’s been hit (apart from maybe a yelp of surprise) it’s an honour-based system. Everyone played in good spirits and in no time at all five rounds had zipped by; we huddled together for a breathless debrief, reliving epic rampages, cowardly conduct and what had, in all, been a thematically grown-up and thoroughly enjoyable regression session.
Once our heartrates had returned to normal we said thank you and goodbye to our brothers and sisters in arms and whiled away the rest of the afternoon exploring and reflecting on the days events. We located the bike-friendly track north-west of Yên Phụ and soon found ourselves surrounded once more by the stickiness of cramped streets, the roar of motorbikes and the pervasive waft of sizzling street food; our time spent on Bãi Giữa began to feel like a strange dream.
In the end, I didn’t leave Banana Island with anything to show for it other than muddy knees, but if you are ever seeking a spectacularly unpredictable departure from metropolitan life, I would highly recommend a day spent peeling back the layers of this wonderful, backyard gem - and remember, it’s okay to expect a little more than you bargain for.
If you are interested in trying your hand at Water Ball Paintball, you can get in touch with Johni Garden via their Facebook page. Sessions are available between 8:30 – 11:30 and 14:30 – 17:30, seven days a week.
Johni Garden recommend a minimum of three players (although you could play head-to-head with a friend, if you really wanted to) and a maximum of fifteen players per team. Bookings must be made two days in advance.
Each session costs 200k or 250k per person (depending on whether you would like to hire a standard or upgraded weapon) which includes your gun hire, eye protection and gameplay.
Johni Garden have kindly offered readers of The Tay Ho Times 20k off gun rental. Groups of ten or more will enjoy a further 10k off their first visit and the winning team will receive three 100k vouchers. To redeem this offer, simply quote “TayHoTimes” when making your inquiry.