For background, I’ve been a homebody for most of my life. Right now I’m 25. In 2019 I traveled for the first time (outside of family vacations at resorts) and doing so has marked a transition point in my life; so much so that I make sense of my personal history as two periods: The pre-travel me and the post-travel me.
Before traveling I was disillusioned with my university studies. The reasons I had for going (to study topics that fascinated me, work on interesting problems, contribute to science) seemed to be based on a faulty and idealistic understanding of how the university system works. It was restrictive on my interests, beset by intellectual dogmas, and I felt like I was merely continuing on a workplace tradition.
By losing the worthiness of a goal I was working towards for three years I became aimless. Existence was dull and too often I was miserable and apathetic. I confided in literature and art because it gave me meaning and a repository of wisdom. But these weren’t enough. I was deficient. Books could not give me what experience could. In many ways Academia showed me that.
Traveling had seemed a way for me to restart my engagement with life.
So, two years ago, in May (the rainy season), I went to Vietnam. I first landed in Hanoi and then made my way South. I visited Sa Pa, Da Nang, Hội An, Hạ Long Bay, Huế, and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
When arriving in Hanoi the time was about 3 am. It was quiet and hot. The airport was small, minimalist and empty. I had come off a 20+ hour plane ride so my senses were dulled. I needed to call an Uber, a taxi, or whatever transport. I had read stories and seen videos of people getting scammed by taxi drivers so I made it a priority to avoid them. But I had no data and Uber doesn’t work in Vietnam (they have their own version called Grab).
As soon as I went outside a man waved at me. His hands clutching at the air as if he was reeling me with rope. I knew I had to be firm, make no eye contact and most importantly make it look like it wasn’t my first time. I walked away, head low to the ground, and he followed. Then I did it. I made eye contact. His eyes widened, his head shaking yes, yes. I asked how much (I learned from YouTube videos that that’s the most important question). He said “400”, which is around $15 US. And without even thinking I nod, and we get to his shuttle-bus.
Inside were two others. A woman in the front and a man in back. I climbed in the back and said “Hello.” The man asked me where I’m from (the universal question). I said, “Canada. And you?”
“What about you?” I asked the woman.
She turned briefly to say, “I’m from Lebanon.”
Then – silence.
I looked out the window thoughtlessly and felt the sensation of “Where am I?” There were long and curving trees and garbage lining the highway sides, piled under dense shrubs and shoddy houses with corrugated roofs and wide unmarked roads with traffic lights dangling from bundled wires. Some motor-bikers skirted past with no helmets, their shirts flailing fast and long like capes.
Our driver was manic behind the wheel. The Russian looked at me and shook his head smirking. I had a feeling of being somewhere dangerous, an emotion like “no turning back”.
“Did you just arrive?” I asked the Russian.
“Yeah.” He was wearing a black shirt and shorts, black wristwatch. On his back a black backpack.
“How long are you staying?” I asked.
“Not long. But I don’t know. I’ll get a motorbike in Hanoi and go south.”
After a few minutes he asked, “How long are you?”
“Two weeks? No, no, no.”
“Not enough,” he said; the Lebanese woman looked over her shoulder. “I’ve been on my journey three months and it is not enough.”
Going inside the city the roads narrowed into cramped strips of pavement. On the sides were stores displaying multi-colours, signs of a language riddled with accents, merchandise on merchandise – clothes, jewelry, electronics, car parts – all dark and shapeless. Few locals lounged on the curb, on concrete steps, on tiny plastic chairs, smoking from large wooden pipes, eating and watching this shuttle-bus zooming through their streets. An old woman sitting on a stool brandished a wide-open smile. My disorientation intensified. I was no longer tired.
I didn’t have much experience with the world at this point. My dealings with people were largely formal and superficial. Naturally I was nervous, which I hated about myself. Which was another reason why I wanted so badly to expose myself to people, the world – to kill off the boogeyman my parents and others built up. One of my mom’s friends said that I shouldn’t go to Vietnam because “bad things happen there.” That’s nonsense. And it’s the worst type – coming from fear and inexperience.
One thing I’ve learned: Don’t take people’s advice so seriously, especially and more so if it’s something they don’t have a direct connection to.
I was impressed by the Russian and had a desire for the adventure he was on even if I didn’t know exactly what it consisted. And even though I was nervous about it. When the two got off I wanted to ask them for their contacts but I was shy – something that would change drastically throughout the trip.
In the tourist district things were quiet, the street lamps lit the surrounding a pale yellow. Some workers were conversing outside the glass double-doors of a hostel and the driver pulled up alongside them. I grabbed my two bags (a large hiking backpack and a string bag) and slid open the door. A warm and heavy air hit me but what was more impactful was the scent. Rich with spices and smog, gas fumes and oil. Hanoi is known for being dense with pollution. Later on at times I’ve felt light-headed from simply walking.
The driver asked for 500k VND. As with anyone inexperienced I was agreeable. This was a characteristic that defined my entire bartering career in Vietnam, or lack thereof. And I could never justify bartering for prices that were already so cheap.
The driver sped away, past the yellow-lit concrete, into an arched gate of stone, a dark portal. One youth from the group stood up and pointed to the hostel. I said, “Yes”. We went to the front desk. The place was narrow yet tall, the same temperature as outside and decorated in a safari-theme and smelt a little like used towels. He took my passport and stored it in a drawer and I quickly thought that he doesn’t work at the hostel. He must be a local thug trying to take my passport? “Every hostel must hold the passports. It’s a standard rule,” he told me while I was staring at the drawer.
Before going on the plane my father instructed me to “leave your bags behind. Someone’ll plant drugs in them and snitch you to the police for a reward.” Good advice, right?
The worker gave me a card for the room and then let me go. But before that I tried out my Vietnamese. I said “cam on”, which is thank you. My pronunciation was as expected. Another worker sitting in the front desk shouted “oh!” then guided me on how to say it. He was drunk and excited. I said it half-heartedly and then went upstairs. I get into my room, find my locker, though I put nothing in it. I get into a top bunk with all my stuff which I lay at my feet. I slide the thick side-curtains to fully shield myself and then lay tired yet not sleepy, thinking “Where am I? What am I going to do?”
Next day I awoke with vibrant colour and activity and heat. In the lobby what was empty and dark was now abundant with people and light. After being formally welcomed I sat on a booth-seat, watched groups of tourists pass and waited for a tour guide provided by a local University. The hostel staff were ahead of me, on computers or standing, at times glancing at me and smiling. Again I had no thoughts, I was all feeling. Soon my tour guide, a young girl, was at the doors.
Stepping out, the sun pressed on my skin with a burn. Shops had unraveled and spilled over the curbs and motorbikes were overflowing the street and weaving around people like schooling fish, some stopping so sudden the drivers were almost jostled out of their seats. And I do mean overflowing. You have to be careful where you’re walking or else you might touch an exhaust.
There were eateries between the stores which were all arranged like rows of boxcars stretching across the street. White steam spewed out the open kitchens and the sizzling meat was loud and mixing with noise of honking and conversation. And the smell – tremendous. Lime, beef broth, mint, lemongrass. Fish sauce. I love Asian food, so I was welcoming. We found a place to eat and I ate a simple chicken and rice meal while my guide watched on probably surprised I was wearing jeans and a buttoned long-sleeve shirt. I was like an ice sculpture in the tiny dining room.
We visited Hoàn Kiếm Lake, St. Joesph’s Cathedral, Thăng Long Imperial Citadel, and a lush park and garden called Quoc Tu Giam. She told me about history and best places for food. But I was most interested to hear about her life. If she enjoyed being in Vietnam, where’d she like to go, how her schooling was going, etc.
Overall I spent nearly seven hours with her – unusual since most tours last two-three. And we had a great time. We ate phở in a popular restaurant and then drank egg coffee in a semi-hidden café overlooking the lake. The interior was cool from the dark concrete walls and had a trapped aroma of roasted coffee and fruit. Short wooden tables and chairs were set in rows along the bare plank-floor and from the wooden blinds a cooler evening air came and the sunlight peeking out the slits was enough to light the place.
After my guide left me at the hostel I went straight to bed. The short time before sleeping I only felt satisfaction and gratefulness for having been there. What surprised me was that I didn’t get a sense of culture shock – as the days progressed I felt more at home than I did back home. The people I met (what I cherish most) were varied, caring and interesting. Everyone had their own stories, passions, failings, and I was eager to listen. I also met some scammers (I lost $190 but my home-stay host got most of it back). None of that mattered though.
On the fifth day in Hanoi I changed my flight in order to stay one month. Vietnam showed me life in the highest resolution. How could I downgrade?
Traveling revealed to me an important aspect of my psychology: Playfulness.
Every situation, person, location was an opportunity to play and discover.
I was as a child in a playground of my own design kept secret from everyone else.
Any discomfort, frustration, delay was inconsequential, akin to falling off on both knees – take a few deep breaths, wipe off the dirt and get back on.
I realized the potential life has to be infinitely worthwhile and fascinating. And my own potential on who I could be, what more, or less, I could make myself. There are so many possibilities, so much life one can explore just in themselves.
Now I know not everyone has my peculiar dispositions. So, what can I generalize out of my own experiences in order to give to others?
Well, if you take two people and set them out on the same journey, you’re going to get different experiences. One may come back with many stories to tell on who they met; the other may detail all the places they saw. One will say a place is a must-see; another that the same place is rubbish.
Ultimately their experiences depend on how they’re engaged.
I know this is a cliché but there are two types of people in the world:
There are those who expect value to be given to them. They are takers. They interact with the world as if reality owes them value. And sometimes they get it but too often they’re disappointed.
Others give value onto experience. In them is the power of creation. They are givers, and they, even without knowing, are the source of value; and truthfully that’s the only tenable source there can be.
I’ve realized that what made Vietnam valuable was not Vietnam. It was my engagement with it – Vietnam mattered because my experiences mattered. My first day was me wrestling with the engagement others (and myself) had made. Then the morning brought clarity, victory, and I was free to engage in the way I genuinely knew how. And that’s when the country opened for me.
Excuse the philosophy but there is no value inherently in the world. That may be shocking to read; it may seem nihilistic. But it’s not. Relying on the world to give you value is exactly what presupposes nihilism. We are in a feedback loop with our reality and it starts and has always started with us.
Maybe I was aware of all this at one time, maybe I forgot that life is ultimately our own playground.
Vietnam helped me to remember and I’m grateful for it.