After 18 months, I say goodbye to Saigon
I'll begin this post with a travel quote I've always loved but never truly understood until I came to Vietnam:
"Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often risky – forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind – and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white." —Mark Jenkins
For me, Vietnam has been a totally different kind of adventure than those previous. Gaining me new perspective of the world, and of myself. Belonging among the most momentous of learning experiences. One that would have been unreachable through continued conventional education–surely unattainable by throwing any amount of money to any university. Likely too large to understand at this point in the game. Or at least that's what I've been telling myself.
As I write this, I'm still a day away from boarding a one-way flight to Bali. I'm still submerged in this place. I'm still navigating through hives of traffic, mastering the maze of one-way streets and alleyways that make up the nonsensical map of Saigon. I'm still living and breathing the stifling heat, the clouds of exhaust from 9 million motorbikes, the scent of grilling meat, boiling broth, jasmine, rotting fruit, wet concrete, and coffee that makes up Saigon's perfume.
I have a feeling I'll need sometime away before I can begin to truly understand what this last year and a half has meant to me.
The city is a concrete ecosystem, changing and morphing and moving constantly; nearly impossible for any organism involved to escape the energy because all survive through the same electric bloodstream.
The Vietnamese people, who call Saigon their home, however, learned long ago to thrive in this environment. Despite being over-caffeinated in a noisy buzzing city, their ability to nap or sleep anywhere at anytime is truly a sight to behold (along with their ability to do anything possible to make a living). For a glimpse of life in the city See this post.
For me, who grew up in a quiet town in Wisconsin, I never really adjusted to the noise, and the buzz has consistently prevented me a completely satisfying night of sleep. I never stopped missing green, wide-open spaces. I longed to hear the sound of crickets and to see the stars.Throughout my entire time here, I craved fresh air and simplicity. Luckily my flexible schedule allowed for plenty of travel and escape time.
Before arriving in Vietnam, me and my backpack had over a year of solid travel. After 58 weeks spent sleeping in hostel dorms, riding night buses, taking cold showers, bartering, navigating new city maps, communicating in a foreign language and constantly watching my back. I felt like an old pro.
Vietnam and Southeast Asia threw new curve balls.
I probably should have left months ago, before negativity began slowly poisoning my thoughts. I remember reading whiny, bitter, expat posts prior to my arrival and wondering what was wrong with these people. Inevitably I caught the sickness. It become more difficult for me to see the beauty in the chaos, and I started finding myself deeply annoyed by trivial things which never would have bothered me before.
I'm saddened to admit, it seems in my time here I officially transformed from traveler to expat. Even more reason to get out of this country as fast as I can ...
Invisible forces seem to keep people here longer than expected. Unfavorable aspects aside, Ho Chi Minh can be a lot of fun. A living museum where people spend much of their time in the hot streets, shady parks or open air cafes. An amusement park disguised as a city. A giant playground to explore on your motorbike. While it's true the streets can be immensely frustrating, they can also be exhilarating, like driving in a video game. A lifetime worth of seeing, eating, and buying.
My teacher salary, though modest for America, made for a very comfortable life in Saigon.And with new cafes, shops and restaurants opening everyday, I always felt like I was indulging, while rarely ever spending near what I would back home. I could live in a beautiful five story house in the city center, or a high rise apartment with a view and pool, raking out far less cash than I would on a subpar room in middle America. I could buy a decent meal for $2 or I could feast like royalty for less than $20.
There is definitely something deeply satisfying about a dollar that gets you farther.
I wonder how these months in Vietnam have changed me. I think about the me that arrived 18 months ago. I went from awkwardness using chopsticks to a preference for them. I saw the motorbikes and the traffic and thought there was no way I'd join that mess. After a few months, I was joining everyday, without fear. At the same, I developed an aggression and impatience while driving I never imagined I had in me.
I've learned that there are some things I may never be ok with. No matter how delicious and fresh South East Asian food is, a life without good cheese, good wine, good ice cream and good beer is a deprived life. And much like the need for air, sleep and food; I have a need to hear the sound of crickets and birds, to smell fresh air, to see green grass and big trees and to hear silence on a regular basis. You can take the girl out of Wisconsin...
I know I'm far less trusting than I was before.When you hear countless stories about your friends and coworkers getting robbed (a few times a month), or when you, yourself, has had a few close encounters with purse snatchers. Or when the TV was taken from your very own living room. Or when you are always being asked a higher prices than you know is fair. You start getting a little paranoid and a lot more protective of your wallet.
In Vietnam, like in many parts of the so-called "developing world," to many local people, a foreigner still means dollar signs. Is it fair? Maybe not. However, chances are if we are lucky enough to be traveling so far from home, we do have more money and more freedom than the average Vietnamese resident. My native English ensured I'd likely always make a higher wage than the average Vietnamese person. Is that fair? Probably not.
I'm no stranger to the social struggles which inevitably come with a nomadic lifestyle. But I found them greater in Asia than in Latin America. While I did meet plenty of special people whose relationship I valued, it was difficult finding a social niche where I was comfortable for very long. My awkward teacher schedule which left me working early mornings on weekends, didn't help this situation.
Due to the nature of this place, the foreigners it tends to attract (young or wild or transient), the social and cultural style of Vietnamese people, I know Vietnam is not a place I could grow deep roots. I say this with a heavy heart and I mean no offense– it's definitely me, not you Vietnam.
Plenty of people fall deeply, and completely in love with Vietnam. I'm not sure yet if I'll be one of them.
Time will tell. Knowing me, fuzzy feelings may develop later. To quote Dickens–“One always begins to forgive a place as soon as it’s left behind.”
Still, I can't help but wonder how my perception would differ had I traveled to this part of the world first.
It was no problem for me to spill my heart out about my year in Latin America–see A Year on the Road: A Reflection. I spent an hour in a subway cyber cafe under the streets of Mexico city writing that post. Reflecting on my time in Vietnam is much different.
Latin America was a fresh fruit salad served with a side of chili salt–colorful, sweet, and tangy with a spicy kick. Vietnam is a sea crab, while delicious and rewarding, it's a hard, messy struggle. I'm still working on cracking it open and enjoying the tiny bits of rich meat.
Ironically, I will end my time in Vietnam, and maybe even Asia, similar to the way I started it. ...in Bali. I wrote about my first trip to Bali clouded by confusion. Still under a love spell from Latin America, I had mixed feelings about my first taste of Asia. I wrote "Maybe I just needed time to digest Bali–or maybe a bit more experience traveling in Southeast Asia to really appreciate it’s beauty." Soon, I will get to test this theory and maybe an additional reflection post is in my future.
I already have a feeling this time around Bali will be much sweeter for me.
Putting aside any negativity or struggles from my time in Vietnam, there certainly were some very big, very special experiences and relationships I managed to gain here, and I will definitely leave with a sense of thankfulness for these and the tough lessons learned.
Lucky for me, the source of many of my best memories from from Vietnam will be joining me in Bali ...
For more about travel in the country and expat life in Vietnam: The Best Parts about Expat Life in Vietnam See Vietnam's incredible natural beauty here Two Week Trip Through Vietnam's Highlights Forget the Pho: Other Vietnamese Dishes to Try Expat Life in Vietnam: The First 3 Months Motorbikes & Food Everywhere: First Impressions