“If I could live above the clouds, life would always be sunny.”
I’ve had this thought from childhood after being on an airplane soaring high above the clouds. Sunniness to me resembles happiness, a brighter mood, an upbeat feeling, a warm glow and smiles from the soul projecting outwards.
Today, I am above the clouds literally and metaphorically.
A while back, I promised myself to take an international jaunt every year. I’ve stayed true to my word. This time I am flying to Vietnam.
Two years ago it was back to Ireland to mend a broken heart from years gone by. Last year, Borneo, to reconnect with nature by trekking through the jungle and coming face to face with the orangutans.
This year’s trip is about adventure and discovery. A cycling tour. A challenge. It’s been a complicated year navigating, finding myself and staying true.
Looking back at my journal, this is what I wrote on the last evening before I returned home. There have been a few edits and additions from the draft I wrote.
As I ride the bus towards Ho Chi Minh City for the last night in Vietnam, I reflect.
Before coming here I didn’t know what to expect. I researched very little as I kind of wanted it to be a real adventure. Perhaps I needed Vietnam to open my eyes rather than reading about it in a book and seeing it from someone else’s perspective.
Like all travel experiences, my eyes have been opened greatly. The people here are very generous, kindhearted and warm. They are proud, love their people and their country. They have defended themselves in the Vietnam (or American) War by banding together as a community. Men, women and children. I certainly have some reading to do when I get home to find out the perspective from the “other side”. After all, it was the Aussie’s who were in alliance with the American Troops. I’ve always turned a blind eye to war believing it was an inhumane act of wasted lives for political nonsense. I still believe this to be true. Hearing and seeing the effects of Agent Orange (the chemical used in warfare) is disgusting. Still to this day, there are children being born with defects from their ancestors exposure to the chemical. It hurts my heart so much. The war remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh City has thousands of photographs and remnants from the war. My heart was breaking. My soul was numb. After the war, I learned, approximately 100,000 civilians died from stepping on hidden landmines or accidentally detonating explosives that were still in the ground. For those that don’t know, Vietnam won the war, with the estimation of 3.8 million Vietnamese dead. The internet tells me 3,000 Australians were wounded and 521 died. 58,000 Americans died and is rationalised by saying it was 1 in 10.
As a communist country (there are only five in the world – Vietnam, China, North Korea, Cuba and Laos) you can see from their everyday living how hardworking the people are. Almost to the point of being laborious, but they are happy, smiling people. For example, we arrived to Hoi An two days after the typhoon and the flood. In those two days the restaurant where we had dinner had been completely cleaned out as if nothing happened. There was no muddy stench or any physical proof the flood had entered the building. The only proof was the photos on the wall.
When buying merchandise bartering may seem confronting to some. I had some experience with this on previous trips to Indonesia, so for me it was not such a big deal. For example, if you are buying a pair of sunglasses (no, they are not real Bolle’s or Dior’s) from a street vendor, work out what you would be willing to pay. If you can buy it for $10 at home, you can certainly buy it here for $2-3. Never be too stingy. Look at how hard they are working to sell it to you. If you are being hassled, walk away. There will be another vendor around the corner or at the front of your hotel when are leaving the next morning.
The bananas, watermelon and pineapple is unbelievably tasty. Another common fruit that is a little unusual due to it’s taste, texture and colouring is the dragon fruit (pitaya). We were totally spoiled by having these fruits freshly picked and brought to us each morning. The snacks are generally sweet and salty at the same time, eg crackers and a type of peanut brittle. Rice and noodles is their staple and generally served with seafood, chicken or vegetables. Green vegetables, such as beans or Morning Glory (water spinach) is very tasty and fried up with garlic and oil. This is pretty much what I ate for the entire 2 weeks. Oh.. and Oreos. I ate a lot of Oreos. One night we had a burger with fries and another night we had pizza.
The main exports of Vietnam is rice (not surprising), coffee, textiles, footwear and electronics. The coffee here is served with sweetened condensed milk. It’s very, very sweet. I enjoyed it. The packet coffee in my room was my life saver. I looked forward to it every day.
I admire the Buddhist culture. To me, it makes the most logical sense. Do good and receive good. I also admire their acceptance of equality between men and women. Women work hard. There is no opening of doors for the ladies. It’s a common courtesy between all. As a white female tourist I never felt unsafe or stared at indecently. The dress code is very relaxed and casual. The only requirement to cover the knees and shoulders is when you are entering a temple.
The only disappointment I have with myself is I should have learned more Vietnamese words and sayings. My brain wasn’t allowing it in. I can only remember “câmón” which means thank you and pronounced like C’mon. My favourite saying was from Sunny, our tour guide, who would always comment with “Oh My Buddha”. It made me smile.
Arriving in many places after the typhoon swept through the south of the country, it was interesting to see all the flooding and damage to the crops and villages. Trees were blown over and broken, roofs from houses missing, powerlines down and rubbish scattered everywhere. It’s hard to know if the rubbish would always be like that as I’m fairly certain that rubbish collection in these small villages would be very infrequent. As we rode our bikes through the villages I could smell burning plastic, so potentially this is the normal way. It is definitely not a pristine country. I heard the weather report and apparently there is another storm on the way just after they cleaned up from the last one 5-7 days ago. Their resilience is commendable.
Traffic in the cities is insane. Mopeds, bicycles, trucks and cars. The locals sometimes wear masks to diffuse the pollution from going into their lungs.
The countryside is how I imagined in some ways. Wide, open, green fields of rice with huts as houses, farmers working away with their traditional triangle hats and some buffalo. However, in other ways, it felt dirty and messy. I can’t say what it was that made it feel this way. It just did. Then when you cycle through the village and the school children are riding their bikes home, their shirts and socks are pristine white. I don’t know how they keep themselves so clean. I’d be filthy for sure.
To my surprise I was challenged way beyond my means. I discovered more than I ever expected. I found happiness, warmth, compassion, empathy and love through the many new faces I met from all around the world and not just Vietnam. I am thankful, grateful and honored to have met such beautiful people to share this journey with.
Thank you to our leader Sunny and our great big happy family. I enjoyed myself immensely (even if I did have a sour look on my face because I had ridden a bicycle 90km the day before). Physically and emotionally, I was very under-prepared, but I made it through and that is what makes this adventure, this story so worthwhile.
I’ll be back to you one day Vietnam. Promise xx