The day we left Vietnam, all I could write was: Good morning, Vietnam. Good morning and goodbye.
And now it’s been weeks since leaving and still my words are slow to come. Where are my words to describe my time in Vietnam?
Hot and cold (the weather and the people).
Intimate and raw.
Love and hate.
Difficult and true.
My time in Vietnam was the definition of going outside my comfort zone. From the moment I arrived in the Hanoi airport (where I was stuck for hours due to my card being declined at the ATM, and where I was consistently harassed by an older Vietnamese man who invited me to stay with him for the night and followed me into the women’s bathroom when I tried to get away…) I was pushed well beyond my comfort zone, forced to remain calm in frustrating and/or scary situations, tested again and again. I was a spectacle wherever I went, Adam and I both were. People openly stared, gawked, pointed, touched our faces, laughed. I was rarely taken seriously because I am a woman. Almost no one knew English and I didn’t know Vietnamese (and even when I tried speaking it, my accent was too horrible for them to understand). Not to mention the difficulty of learning how to ride a manual bike and then drive it over 2,000 km in a foreign country. Yes, every day in Vietnam was another push outside my comfort zone, another test of my character, another test of my patience.
If it weren’t for traveling by motorbike, I might have left Vietnam after a few days. It was freezing and rainy and loud and hectic and unfriendly. If it weren’t for the motorbikes, I may have skipped from Hanoi to Hue, traveling down the coast to the largest and most touristy cities by bus or plane, skipping the mountains and the small towns and the crappy roads. If it weren’t for the motorbikes, I wouldn’t have seen anything but the insides of nice restaurants and hotels, sandy beaches and knick knack shops. If it weren’t for the motorbikes, I wouldn’t know Vietnam the way I do, and maybe I would love it more. And yet…. and yet I wouldn’t change a thing about my month in Vietnam.
I wouldn’t change my travel companion. I wouldn’t change the fact that I unluckily picked the coldest weather Vietnam has seen in 30 years to travel in. I wouldn’t change having to learn how to ride a manual bike in the worst traffic I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t change the cold and constant rain, the flat tires, the almost daily trips to the mechanic, the close calls with buses, the angry searches for dinner after dark, the completely-lost-in-translation moments, the endless bowls of Pho, or the potholed roads. I wouldn’t change the long days of endless stretches of road, my butt numb from sitting for hours, my hands stuck in claws from being around the handle bars all day. I wouldn’t change the shit hotels with stained sheets and rock hard beds and only cold water showers and no heating (ok, maybe I would change that…)
Motorbiking through the country was hard, but the biking wasn’t what made my time in Vietnam hard. Vietnam made Vietnam hard.
In Vietnam I learned about true inequality between men and women. I’ll never stop fighting for my right to be paid as much as my male coworkers, but now I am thankful I even have the right to fight for that equality. I am thankful I get to choose who I love and whether I want to marry them rather than being (literally) stolen from my house at the age of fourteen, forced to move away from my family, required to rear and raise children while being responsible for 100% of the family’s income. I am thankful I can choose not to marry at all, to instead focus on a career. I am thankful I was encouraged to go to school, that my worth isn’t judged by whether someone wants me as their wife, that my future doesn’t rely on my ability to birth a son, that if I do marry my husband is legally bound to me and can’t decide to leave one morning and take everything with him while I am left with nothing but five children, no home, no money, no food, no sympathy. I’m thankful I’m able to go back to school or travel the world or start my own business or live in a commune, whatever I please, all because I was born at a different longitude and latitude, within different borders on a different continent.
And then there were some things I wish I hadn’t seen.
I wish I could unsee the cage of puppies on the back of a motorbike. No matter how many times I tell myself they were being taken to some type of shelter, I’m not naive enough to believe it.
I wish I could unsee the groups of ducks laying outside of shops along the street. Alive, looking around, quacking, but unmoving. Why aren’t they walking away? They’re so close to the street. Don’t the cars scare them? It hit me like a slap across the face after driving past the third shop with the same scene outside. Oh. Their legs were broken so they could be bought alive but managed easier. Oh.
I wish I could unsee the husband, sitting on the floor with his friends, red in the face from too much rice wine at the ripe hour of 12 p.m., yelling at his wife to get me the coffee I asked him for. And the wife, toddler on her hip, skillet in hand cooking my lunch, rushing to comply.
I wish I could unhear our hiking guide tell us that she cries when she drinks too much rice wine. That she doesn’t know why, she just cries and can’t stop.
And yet, I’m glad I saw and heard all. Ignorance may be bliss but naivete is unforgivable when the truth is in front of you begging to be seen.
So, my time in Vietnam was life changing and eye opening and yet I won’t be rushing back any time soon.
I had some of my worst travel moments in Vietnam and yet it will always have a special place in my heart.
I’d never call Vietnam home and yet I know it better than I know most countries.
All of this I attribute to traveling by motorbike. After traveling through Vietnam by motorbike I’m left to wonder what I missed in every other country I’ve traveled to. Did I actually see the countries or did I only see what tourists see, what I wanted to see, what they want me to see?
I can’t wait to travel this way again. I can’t wait to be free on an open road, wind in my hair, sun at my back, free to stop whenever and wherever I please, my eyes open to all: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Thanks for the ride, Vietnam. It was real.