Vietnam's Quest Festival: Searching for the Good Times

I wandered around the main building with an empty water bottle and nerves so close to the surface I almost snapped when some sweaty guy bumped into me. My mouth was dry, my feet were bleeding, and my head felt like cascading aneurysms. I felt dirty right down to my soul — so dehydrated I couldn’t even sweat. Part of me wanted to get in a taxi and spend the rest of the day in the nearest hotel, just so I could get some actual sleep in a real bed with the AC blasting me in the face — and not in a fucking tent city somewhere outside of Hanoi, with nothing to drink but orange Fanta

Quest Festival. Three days and two nights of beautiful scenery, eccentric people, and enough drugs to get all of Vietnam high until Tet. Girls with flowers in their hair, strange costumes, and a whole bunch of sober onlookers wondering why the fuck all these rich foreigners would want to sleep in tents and roll around in the mud. The best of highs and a sense of melancholy that still hasn’t left me yet — even now, a week later.

Quest Festival in Vietnam — photo by Matthew Pike

I have so many twisted memories from Quest — visions of greasy meals and toilets backed up with turds the size of my arm. People walking around in circles for hours, always searching for the Good Times they knew had to be happening somewhere. The hiss of balloons and the carnal howls of dancers riding an induced euphoria. The soundtrack of endless humping in tent city as yet another pair came to the realization that neither of them had enough brain chemicals left to orgasm.

By Saturday morning, it was perfectly clear that Quest wasn’t just another festival. I’d come to Quest with the vague notion that this was something important — the birth and early incarnation of a new festival culture in Vietnam. I knew the story had to be beautiful, because Quest was beautiful. But I found myself more drawn to watching the ugliness — brains on autopilot sending out reptilian signals to overworked legs, thousand-yard stares, impish cleaners gathering debris, spent dancers sulking off to their tents to roast, and mostly just a lot of people sitting around looking at each other.

Morning scene at Quest Festival in Vietnam — photo by Matthew Pike

As the minutes ticked away, I sipped my water and watched the morning turn into afternoon — thousands of people floating through some kind of hedonistic binge in a Vietnamese paradise. Everywhere I looked, ashen faces and slumped figures, skittish people who’d been dancing all night. People who were still tripping from the acid they’d taken before tomorrow turned into today.

“Bitter … that’s some real … break that with it.”

Next to me, some girl with bugged-out eyes writhed on a stump. She kept pointing randomly at passersby and muttering weird mixtures of words. She looked like a girl you’d see passed out on a London sidewalk, except infused with the spirit of Gollum and pumped full of party drugs.

“Bruises filling … here’s where it is.”

“Please don’t talk to her,” I said to Jess, who’d joined me on the wooden beam to eat our egg salad sandwiches. The girl was chewing the shit out of the inside of her cheek and looking around like a starved dog.

“She looks fucking horrible,” Jess said, slowly looking away from her.

“Look at these guys coming there now.”

Two guys were holding empty water bottles, marching like prisoners on their way back to a prison camp after a long night of stomping the ground and punching the air. They passed by a group of Lads with full beers who were heading in other direction.

“Is it too early to drink?” I asked, finishing the last soggy bite of my sandwich.

“Probably,” Jess said. “Though I kind of want one.”

“I need a joint first. Let’s find the Dude-Bros.”

Tent city at Quest Festival in Vietnam — photo by Matthew Pike

When we found their tent, one among the hundreds lined together like gravestones, the Dude-Bros were just getting up. You could almost count the number of drinks they’d had the night before by the rings around their eyes.

“Have a good night?” I asked.

Dude,” Mr.Clean said, rolling over inside his tent. “Turtle Tent was fucking lit.”

In the next tent over, somebody we didn’t know groaned and flailed around violently. “Voices,” he said, muttering to himself. Then he laughed in a weird, monotonous way. “You’re all monsters.”

“What?” I said, giving Other Dude-Bro a look.

“He’s been saying shit like that all morning,” he said, shaking his head. “I think he took a bunch of acid.”

“Monsters?” I said, lowering my voice. “No … the devil. Beelzebub. 666.”

“Oh my god…” The guy squirmed around, moaning in horror like he was in the trunk of a sinking car. We left him trying to jab his limbs through the walls of his tent. He wasn’t quite ready to get dragged off to the Dove’s Nest just yet — the place where doomed trips went for help — but he was pretty close.

“Joint?” I asked to Other Dude-Bro

“Might as well,” he said.

Party boat at Quest Festival in Vietnam — photo by Matthew Pike

I spent the rest of the afternoon leaned against a tree, refilling my eco-cup with more Nada beer, taking in a long-exposure impression of Quest. This is going to sound lame, but this festival felt like an empty-calories kind of experience. It was a bunch of people sitting around, bored and tired and hungover, waiting for something to happen.

“What are we doing next?”

“I don’t know.”

“And then?”

“No ‘And then.’”

Onlookers at Quest Festival in Vietnam — photo by Matthew Pike

Alright, that was a bit too negative. That was me struggling through overlapping hangovers. My brain was fried and I never could drink enough water to make up for what I was losing in sweat. Despite my grumpiness, Quest really was a well-run festival. The tents were up and ready for us when we arrived. The service at the bars was actually pretty good considering how fucked up everyone was. And the music was fucking awesome. I never knew that somebody could play drums with a water buffalo skull on their head, but I sure as hell do now.

I mean, come on.

Buffalo skull drummer at Quest Festival in Vietnam — photo by Matthew Pike

I think my grumpy-old-man mood came from being forced to be around people for so long. During the day I usually hide in my room, but there was no escaping Quest. The tents were ovens, and every time I heard one of my neighbors shuffling around, it broke my tenuous illusion of privacy. My capacity for being around people had already filled up — and I got the impression as I watched people slumping around that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

But when night finally comes, the whole atmosphere changes. People stop wandering around looking for something to do. Some hover around speakers and DJs like moths to the flame, while others sit under psychedelic lights and let the music ripple through them — tribal scenes of blissful partiers and wary onlookers.

Ecstatic dancers at Quest Festival in Vietnam — photo by Matthew Pike

Those who aren’t on some kind of drug cocktail watch those who are. Some watch with a kind of despair in their eyes, like they’ve somehow lost their sense of where the good vibrations come from — painfully aware of being an outsider who can’t find the wavelength for fun anymore — unable to twist their mind into the rhythm without drugs.

And so they take drugs and dance until the sun comes up, chased by visions as they slip over the mud and have weird conversations with strangers who move around them like chromatic shadows, floating through crowds until they’re too tired to stand and eventually they find their tent and pass out beside it because it’s too hot inside. They look at the sky and search for constellations but find nothing so they gaze into the back of their hand, trying to ignore the sounds of people having sex by focusing on the distant bass still coming from the Turtle Tent, but they can’t ignore the wet noises of two people on ecstasy trying desperately to cum.

And then security checks if they’re alive.

Night dancers at Quest Festival in Vietnam — photo by Matthew Pike

“Hello, this your tent?” Above me stood two security guards, poking me with their batons.

“Yes,” I said. “My tent.”

“Quá nóng,” (Too hot) Jess said from inside the tent. The guards burst out laughing and continued on their rounds, leaving me under the stars with a flip-flop digging into my back.

I must’ve slept, because I woke up inside the tent. It sure didn’t feel like it, though. At my feet, Jess was zipping up the flap.

“Water,” I said, reaching out my hand.

“I got you a Fanta.”

“Why the fuck would I want a Fanta?”

“It’s all they had,” she grumbled. “Could you try not being an asshole?”

“How the fuck do they not have water?”

I snatched an empty bottle from the corner and scrambled out of the tent, staggering by long lines of miserable-looking people outside of the bathrooms — others showering under faucets in their bathing suits — no smiles in this crowd. When I finally made it to the main bar, I smacked my empty bottle on the counter.

“Water,” I moaned. “Please tell me you have water.”

“We don’t have any,” the girl said, her eyes betraying that she’d been saying the same thing every fifteen seconds the whole morning. “We only have Fanta.”

“Who the fuck wants to drink Fanta right now?”

Morning swimmers at Quest Festival in Vietnam — photo by Matthew Pike

Off to the next bar — also no water. Then to where some guy stood over a few dozen giant bottles, getting waved off with the usual Vietnamese wrist flick. Finally, hidden on a table in the food area, I found some fucking water.

“Let’s get out of here,” Jess said, as I got back to the tent.

“Fuck yes,” I said, “and let’s get a taxi. No more buses.”

Jess was already walking away with the bedding and foam pads: "Agreed."

It took me three more days of air-conditioning and idle thoughts to recover from Quest. Even now, a week later, I still have no idea how I feel about the whole experience. All I know is that I left it more depressed than I’ve felt in a long time — though I only have myself to blame for that one.

Don’t get me wrong, I had fun — and yet there’s this lingering suspicion that I’m only telling myself I had a great time because it makes small talk easier.

“How awesome was Quest, man?”

“Pretty awesome.”

Kitchen staff at Quest Festival in Vietnam — photo by Matthew Pike

I keep having this weird thought that I’ve convinced myself I had fun because any reasonable person should’ve been able to have fun. But then I tried to write about Quest and I blanked. It didn’t feel right to give it a normal kind of review because it wasn’t a normal festival. The location was stunning, the people were beautiful in every sense of the word, and security just let everyone have as much fun as they wanted to — as long as they weren’t making any trouble.

There were so many reasons to love Quest. It was the Vietnamese version of some of the best festivals from around the world. Maybe I’ll feel better about it once I forget about how low I felt afterwards. There’s probably a pill for that.