Between China, Laos, Cambodia and the South Chinese Sea, and 40 years after the war, there is a country that lives on agriculture and is trying to claim back its identity.
In this country one side of the road is a fancy restaurant with burgers on its menu; on the other side there’s a hut that sells plastic containers of meat and broth to be eaten on chairs and tables lining the sidewalk. The first McDonald’s opened in February of 2014 – an American fastfood restaurant in Vietnam that does not accept credit cards or US dollars (widely accepted everywhere else).
Between China, Laos, Cambodia and the South Chinese Sea, there is a country struggling to stay up. And it does, smiling. It does stay up offering food, warmth, like a newbie in a call center would do. Then it brings you down because of the 1,000 bikes darting around that don’t care about you standing in the crosswalk. They just avoid you and swarm your personal space. Maybe carrying a piece of furniture on the seat. You can’t get used to it.
Biggest cities like Ho Chi Minh – counting 10 millions people – boasting concrete, chaos, houses built without proper architectonic standards and humidity reaching the 90 percent, make you want to go back to your hotel because you can’t see the sun, the smog is thick and horns’ sound is way higher than the volume of your voice. After 18 hours of flights and airports, Ho Chi Minh is the last thing you want to see. It’s like a math test during the first hours of school. Eventually, you just leave your bags and go out. You deal with a different kind of world, new smells and try to get used to it.
I missed the food of my home country. I missed the comfort food.
Halfway between Ho Chi Minh (in the south) and Hanoi (in north) are Hoi An and Hue, must-see places if you’re touring Vietnam. I haven’t seen much of Hue: just a couple of chickens on the street of my hotel, a harassing taxi driver who replied “fuck you” to my “go away” after I spent five hours sick on a bus; two blister packs of Panadol, antibiotics and a thermometer. Four days sick with 3 channels in English to keep me company and two Oreos packs. I missed the food of my home country. I missed the comfort food. I missed my mom’s recommendations on how to feel better.
From Hue, it’s a 15 hours train ride to Hanoi, the last leg of my trip. Fifteen awful hours on a bed made out of rocks probably. The dust was included. But finally the temperature started to go down.
In Ha Long Bay (UNESCO heritage site) I kayaked surrounded by isles and fishermen’s villages and beneath my canoe, huge jellyfish were swimming peacefully. With those majestic cliffs covered in a vivid green and the water gliding by, I felt thankful for what I was experiencing. That was the moment in which I told myself “Well, this is one hell of a place. This is my definition of peace“.
From Hanoi, another train. 10 hours more. Another sleepless night. A train that took me to a gem of this country. Two hours from the station, there’s Sapa, a small town embraced by peaks and paddies, hairpin turns and villages.
A challenging 12 kilometers hike under the burning sun and 30 (unexpected) degrees Celcius fried my nose and neck. I had never hiked before in my life and didn’t know I had to walk on bamboo poles over a river and balance myself on a narrow alley facing a 10 meters drop.
My shoes didn’t fit the purpose and the women of the Hmong village saved my life 87 times. I walked in a sweat, felt the ground on my hands and the boiling sun on my face. I thought “At least I purchased a medical insurance. The repatriation of the body is included. Yay!”
I couldn’t get used to that situation. I was tired and I kept complaining. But I didn’t mind because the scenery was incredible, unbelievably beautiful.
I couldn’t get used to that situation.
Only after I got back home, I’ve found out that some smog and noise is ok; to sweat, to feel the thirst and to get my hands dirty. I understood that if you love everything of a journey, you can’t seize the beauties. I understood that it’s fine to feel yourself out of place.
New York is the city I love the most but it will never give me what this trip gave me. London is beautiful, yeah. And so is Paris. But you get used to it. It’s too easy. It’s all similar to our way of living and culture.
The trick is to get out of the comfort-zone, escape from the everyday life. We need to push ourselves beyond our limits and beliefs.