I was walking in the village of Te Van, Vietnam working my way to the start of my trek through the muddy hillsides covered in rice patty fields when I looked over at the man walking next to me. We started a short conversation because he heard me speaking English with a typical American accent. I found out that he was from Chicago, and even though he was surprised that I lived in Seoul, South Korea it didn’t take long to realize that I really was from Colorado. He and his family had been traveling through Vietnam for the last couple of weeks and remarked that we were the first people from America that he had come across. I told him that it is not an unusual thing to experience when traveling the world. Rarely, do I run into other Americans, and as of late, if I do, they usually happen to be part of the international teaching community like me. Americans do not typically travel outside of America.
Part of this is because America is a vast land with so many amazing places to visit that it shouldn’t be a big surprise that they wouldn’t think to visit places so far away. Proximity plays a big part in the equation too. It takes a long time stuck in the cramped spaces of an airplane to get to the place where you are going and then when you get there you get to experience jet lag for a few days before you can truly enjoy yourself. Americans have been known to travel to Mexico, Central America and the islands in the Caribbean because they are closer, and I have not run into many Australians or New Zealanders while traveling through Europe for pretty much the same reason. Lastly, there is this aspect of being comfortable. When you go to a different country, there are many cultural and language differences that you have to overcome in order to truly enjoy yourself. It causes a lot of stress for a moment that should be relaxing. Why would anybody want to do that to themselves?
Most of the time when people think of vacation they think of the moments when they can get pampered and leave their troubles behind. They want to find that expansive beach that looks out over the ocean so they can bask in the sun with a good book. They want that neon colored drink with the fat straw, heavy pour, and plastic umbrella. They want that soft bed with the towels folded into a swan and covered with rose petals. This way they can forget about their complicated lives for awhile and truly enjoy themselves. Why complicate things by learning about a new culture at the same time?
Actually, that is the thing that excites me the most with travel. I want to experience new things, and see a new perspective on the world. As the world moves closer to hiding themselves behind their secure borders, I would prefer to see how the rest of the world is living, and try to gain a different understanding of the people from different cultures. Yes, I do enjoy being pampered from time to time, but that is not the main focus of my travels.
Many Americans will find the all-inclusive places along the beach in other countries that allows them to enjoy this carefree life, but is that really getting out of their comfort zone. It is just another representative of America on a distant shore. In order to really experience that culture, the people need to leave the confines of their safe hotel and walk out on the streets of the place where they are visiting.
This can be a very scary endeavor. The streets on Ha Noi are a great example of this. People in this great metropolis need to get from one place to another just like in any other city, but they do not usually do it by car. Instead, many of them purchase motorbikes to trek across town. They don’t only take themselves, but they will load up their whole family on these bikes. There were many times that I saw a dad guiding the bike through the busy streets of town with the mom sitting sidesaddle on the back while holding on to a new born baby as the younger brother bounces up and down on the father’s lap. They weave their way through the traffic that is not dictated by any traffic lights, so there is always a blending of hundreds of bikes, cabs, cars, and trucks at every intersection with each one of them vying for the position that will allow them to get to their destination, and they let others know of their presence by continuingly honking on their horns. It creates a crying cacophony of music that lets people know they are in Ha Noi.
But one must look beyond the traffic if they really want to see the heart of the place they are visiting, and Ha Noi really has a heart to it. Once I ventured out of the streets of the old quarter, I found Hoan Kiem Lake. This is probably the most touristy place in the whole city. Restaurants and bars circle the lake, and if you are really adventuresome you can check out a water puppet show. I decided to visit the temple on the small island in the middle of the lake instead.
This is the place where I was able to put the noise of the city behind me and find some peace. The tranquility here allowed me to collect myself and really start to understand the culture of Vietnam. It was also the place where one of the country’s greatest myths played out. The name of the lake translates to “The Lake of the Returned Sword”. The legend goes that in the 15th century, Le Loi, on his way to becoming the emperor of Vietnam, was gifted a great sword named Heaven’s Will by the turtle god that lived in the lake. Le Loi used the sword to defeat his enemies and gain control over Vietnam. He returned to the lake and was once again visited by the turtle god asking for the sword back. After thanking the turtle god for the use of the sword, he returned it to him and the turtle brought it back under the lake where it is supposedly still buried today.
I had never heard of this story before, but it showed me that no matter where I travel in the world, the people have great stories that help give their culture shape and depth. It also showed me that no matter where I went, the stories might have their own unique twist to them but essentially they are the same. This story reminded me of Excalibur and the lady of the lake. This story reminded me a lot about the world. Though we may wear different clothes, pray to different gods, and eat different foods, we still value the same ideas held up with our heroes, and when we dig through all the superficial stuff, we are still the same underneath it all. It is easy to forget this when we stay safe in our home clutching on to our national pride.
I have started to realize that this is one of the main reasons that I travel.
But there are other reasons as well.
My travels also takes me to some of the most amazing sites this world has to offer. I have traveled to many National Parks in the United States. I have roamed over the vast fields filled with animals in Africa. I have studies the great cathedrals in Europe. And I have been to many of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Each time I visit one of these places, I am awed by the natural beauty, and Halong Bay might top the list as one of the most spectacular places I have ever seen. Any visit to the northern part of Vietnam has to include a cruise on this bay, and I would recommend going for at least three days and two nights.
This bay supports almost two-thousand tree clad islands. Some of them are so small that they will only support one or two people; whereas, others are so large that they have oyster farms, or beaches, or hidden caves on them. The cruise I went on took me to some of the better ones while giving me the opportunity to swim in the ocean, kayak to a hidden hideout of the Vietcong soldiers during the Vietnam war, and take a hike to the top of one of the tallest islands so I could survey the expanse of this wonder. This best part of this adventure was I got to do it from the comfort of a small ship that served amazing meals next to a well stocked bar. During the night, they taught us how to squid fish, and in the morning they showed us some Tai Chi.
With all of these experiences and views that are offered on an excursion like this why would I want to sit at home and see the same thing over and over again? I once had a student of mine tell me that a trip like this was not worth it because he could go online right now and experience the same thing through the free pictures that he found there, but I know from experience that these pictures do not do a place justice. Going out there and seeing the majesty of these islands and enjoying them from the comfort of a patio on a small ship is completely different from scrolling through pictures on Google image. I get to breathe in the fresh air. I get to taste the salt on my lips. I get to hear the gentle waves crash against the ship. It is the whole experience that makes it amazing, not just the view.
But this isn’t the only reason I travel.
Hidden in the clouds next to the border of China is the small mountain town of Sa Pa. This place shows the diversity Vietnam has to offer and reminds me a lot of the smaller towns in the hills of Colorado. There were a couple of streets where all of the restaurants situated themselves, and a market place was built, dedicated to creating and selling various handwoven items. It is an amazing process to actually see. Women, living in the hills, will gather hemp which they will constantly be threading together to make into a durable thread. This thread will then be dyed with a color created from the flowers growing all over the hills. It will then be woven together to turn into bags, pillowcases and shirts. They are beautiful pieces of art that are a huge part of the economy of this small town.
I learned even more about it when I ventured out of this small mountain town and spent a night in the village of Te Van. Many travelers will come out to these villages to stay at a home stay, and then hike between the villages to stay at another home stay. When I first heard about this cultural experience, I was really excited. It sounded like a place where you would stay with a family from the village, learn how to cook their traditional foods, and enjoy their company for as long as you stayed there. But this was not the case.
It felt more like a hostel that was built around somebody’s home. They supplied us with a bed in the corner of the house that was sectioned off from the rest of the people by a blanket tied to a rope. They did cook a nice meal for us, but it was not the most memorable one I had on this voyage. The thing that made it great was the company I got to share it with. I met a nice family from Switzerland, and a happy couple from Australia, but once again my friends and I were the only ones from America staying there for the night.
Even though I did not get the experience I wanted from the home stay, it does not mean that I did not enjoy my time there. I did get to go on a long hike through the hills. It started on day where the rain had pounded the fields early in the morning, and we each had to pay ten dollars a piece for a guide. At first I thought the price was a little steep, but I soon learned why it cost that much to make the hike through the mountains.
The path through the rice patty fields and bamboo groves was carved from the mountains, and because of the rain had turned into mud. This would not have been a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that we were not traveling on a flat road. The path took us up through the hills only to bring us back down again. The guide was able to navigate these paths without too much difficulty to get us to the next village with ease.
Each one of us also found a companion hiking with us. At first, I thought that they were just ladies who were being nice to hike with us through the hills as they made their way to wherever it was they were going, but I soon noticed that every time we stopped to take a break, they would stop with us. Eventually they helped us move through the muddy trails by holding our hands, especially when it got steeper. They carried this big basket on their backs and never slipped once which made me feel like a total scrub, considering I grew up in the mountains and usually have sure footing when I am in them. This is when it started to dawn on me that this is where our money was going to. After I considered that, the price of the guide did not seem that outrageous.
Of course, when we made it to the next village, before we sat down to lunch, the ladies convinced us to buy some of their wares they were lugging on their backs. How could I say no, after all they did to help my friends and me make it through the mud. I do have to warn others who might want to make this voyage though. As soon as I bought one thing from the kind lady that helped me, it signaled to all others in the area that I had money and they swarmed me with requests about buying their wares as well. It is really hard to tell a ten year girl who is holding up a bracelet she supposedly made that you don’t want to give her any money, but in the long run, she will never be able to improve her lot in life if she continues to peddle products on the street instead of being in school where she belongs. It broke my heart to see it but I knew it was the right thing to do. The older ladies trying to get me to buy things didn’t get the same kind of sympathy, plus I didn’t have enough money to buy something from all of them.
We eventually got back on the path and it took me to one of the most beautiful spots I had seen on the whole trip, a waterfall that wove its path down the tall mountain. An outcropping of rocks allowed for a relaxing spot where I could lay out and listen to the rush of water as it passed by. It allowed me to clear my mind and absorb all of the things I had experienced and comes to terms with it as it related to my life. Sometimes, I get so wrapped in my daily duties that I completely forget about my place in the world. I start to think that I hold a greater importance than I really do, but there is a whole world of people out there believing the same thing, and we can’t all be right. Sometimes I should just decompress to recognize that my problems are smaller than the ones that others are experiencing and the little things that I make a big deal about, I have no control over and they should be rushed away like the water pouring over that outcropping I found on that sunny day. I just need to enjoy the moments as they are presented to me.
This is the real reason that I travel.
So I respect my fellow traveler from Chicago who took his family out on an adventure far from the comforts of the United States. He came to the same realization that I did that there is more to this world than what can be found in the confines of the country we grew up in, and it is important to see them. It gives a true perspective of the world we live in and to our own lives. My hope is that more people take this risk so the world we live in becomes a smaller place, and we can start to heal the wounds that are dealt between us.
Brought to you by Tag: A Cautionary Tale.