As my Bangkok bound flight ascends higher into the air, the birdseye view of the Saigon night sky becomes but an illusion of the past - and I am reflecting on the past two weeks.
I am left in awe over this incredible country; what respect & fondness I've grown from the rich, troubled history, and how I've been touched by & connected with such a kind population of people. I have learned and seen more then I could have hoped for in two weeks, yet it was not nearly long enough.
After leaving Hanoi, we spent time at a homestay in Hoi An. The family did not speak English, but hospitality needs no language; the mother made sure we were well fed and laundered. Hoi An is the tailor capital of the world, as you can get anything custom made for dirt cheap - it's impossible not to indulge!
We took a rewarding Vietnamese cooking class which involved a morning visit to the bustling market to pick up our fresh ingredients and a boat ride to a small island where we did our cooking. It was so enjoyable to get my hands into cooking again - something major that I miss living without a kitchen. We prepared fresh shrimp spring rolls, Vietnamese pancakes, beef salad and beef noodle soup.
Another night bus later we were in Nha Trang, where we stayed only long enough to get an awkward sunburn and a decent night sleep. The next morning, we left for a multi-day motorcycle trip with Vietnamese guides as per my friend's reccomendation of "Dalat Easy Rider Club." Although it was a big expense for our meager Southeast Asian backpacker budgets, it quickly became the highlight of both of our trips.
My driver, Rocky, spoke perfect English and made it his duty to show us the "real" Vietnam. I'm afraid I can't even appropriately document the incredible list of what we saw, as we stopped nearly every half hour deep in the depths of Vietnam. To name a few: we saw workers harvesting rice fields and sugar cane fields, we spoke with minority tribes, toured a silk factory, sampled rice "wine" in its production, swam with local children in a river, joined in a couple's wedding photos, walked through and smelled coffee plantations, ate traditional Vietnamese soups, viewed acres of greenhouses, hiked beautiful waterfalls, stopped to soak up the views, learned how to make rice paper (this woman produced nearly 16 million rice papers after 30 years on the job, 7 days a week, 12 hours a day) and so much more. Everywhere, the local strangers welcomed us, happy to pause their hard work to tell us about their life (with our guides translating). Although we stopped quite a bit, we were on the road just as much, and I often had to place my hand over my heart to ensure I didn't die and go to heaven!
Vietnam has taught me what it means to have your breath taken away. I've been lucky to have seen many stunning sights all over the world now - but there is something different about Vietnam, something so unexpected. I never before associated this country with the kind of beauty I saw - the unbelievable terrain that varied so greatly in such short distances from mountains, valleys, rivers, desert, cities, villages and beaches.
At first, I breezed through the mountains of Vietnam with Rocky's entertaining singing, trying to seize the moment on my camera. Soon, I realized that no picture could capture the experience, so instead of looking through a lens, I focused on absorbing every centimeter of pure bliss.
After spending a night in Dalat, an adorable town nestled in the mountains whose French colonization shows in its architecture, we had another bike trip towards the beaches of Mui Ne. After a couple days on Vietnam's finest beach, I parted ways with Krista and headed to Saigon.
Small world syndrome strikes again - there was a fellow who was in my dorm in Bangkok right before I left now in my dorm in Saigon. Another extremely creepy life quirk given the millions of hostels right in each city.
Other than the street salesman that harass you, I really loved Vietnamese people as a whole. Many young people were anxious to practice their English, so I often was approached on local buses and parks and happily spoke with them.
One of the coolest experiences was when I was reading my book in a park, and a nice gentleman asked to practice his English with me. More and more people joined our conversation, and when the word spread that I was an English teacher in Thailand, and I found myself teaching a very large group of young people. It was so amusing and I was more than happy to spend my time with them - and it also made me realize how much more enjoyable it is to teach people who genuinely want to learn!
I took another free tour, as reccomended by our tour guides in Hanoi. I spent the whole day with 20 year old Khai, whose exceptional English has grown from his involvement with an American study abroad program in Saigon. He was extremely knowledge about the city and history, and I even felt comfortable enough with him to pick his brain on political topics. I'm grateful to Khai for teaching me so much.
The most memorable part of the day was a visit to the War Remnants Museum (Khai told me the name has been changed from "American War Crimes"). This museum was very difficult to visit and brought up similar feelings of walking through a Holocaust museum. Only this time, I wasn't the victim, I was the perpetrator. The pictures were more brutally graphic than any museum I've been to before. As a United States citizen, seeing firsthand pictures of the genocide that my country caused was not easy. This topic is something that I have struggled with since I first studied American Imperialism a few years ago, and is something I will continue to struggle with as I figure out my identity (or lack there of) as an American in the world.
On a happier note, I am astounded by the forgiveness of Vietnamese people. Before I came, I was warned that they hate Americans, but I did not find that at all, even with the older generation. Khai told me in school they study the war as an event without judgement. This war happened only 40 some years ago, so I find it commendable that the America-Vietnam relations have become so normalized. It is clear that Vietnamese people do not look back, only to the future. I don't know many other populations who don't hold some form of a grudge for such a massive genocide.
I got to spend a couple nights in Saigon with my friends I was meant to travel with. Over large 50 cent beers (too cheap to turn down), we compared our trips and discussed our future lives abroad.
Lately, I find myself both analyzing in my head and with my friends our lives here, who equally find as much comfort in talking about it with one another as I do. Partly, I think we've all been trying to justify that it's okay we are not following the social norm. Although having my friends' support is helpful, their British society puts much more of an emphasis on traveling for a few years before "settling down" than does North America. Perhaps my lack of American friends in Asia makes me feel abnormal, although I'm cognizant that it's only due to the social pressures that are so engrained in my mind. I hate that these exist; being happy in my one life should be the only real consideration.
I arrived back to Bangkok last night. After 6 months here, Thai food tastes like home and Thai language sounds like home.
Tomorrow, I am off to Hong Kong for a week! I am thrilled to find out via facebook that one of my best camp friends, Danny, is coincidently there the same time as me. What are the chances?
I never knew that it was possible for life to be so very sweet.