Saturday, March 17, 2012

Venturing Vietnam

What a world it is! In the realm of just Southeast Asia, each country proudly exhibits a vastly different culture, language, religion and cuisine. Upon landing in Hanoi, Vietnam, I felt for the first time in my 6 months on this continent that I was really in Asia. I'm struggling to pinpoint what feels so much more foreign, which may well be my developed comfort in Thailand.

Imagine the place you thought had the most insane drivers & lack of traffic regulation, and times that by 20 = Hanoi. I once thought Israeli drivers were out of their mind, until I saw the reckless roads in southern Italy, until I witnessed the helmet-less families of 5 crammed on one motorbike swerving in between cars on the wrong side of the road in Bangkok, and now I'm convinced there can not be anything crazier then Hanoi. Saying that, I've been forewarned that the biggest city in Vietnam, Saigon, takes the lead in roadside hysteria. It's hard to describe in words the intersections lacking traffic lights with the swarm of thousands of motorbikes, cars and bicycles maneuvering around pedestrians, but certainly not stopping for them - even people midway across the street are left to dodge the vehicles strategically. A few days in Hanoi, and you'll learn that crossing the street is a skill. Motorbikes often carry enormous loads of wholesale goods triple the size of the actual bike, strapped on with bungee cords, requiring a double glance to ensure your eyes don't lie. Vietnam brings a whole new meaning to honking: it's not used in the negative context that it is often in Western society; instead it's a repetitive harmonious-like symbol to warn others, "Watch out, I'm coming!" And watch out you best!

I flew here alone, planning to explore Hanoi until my friends arrived 5 days later. I hadn't realized how much our time difference would put us off schedule, and I want to see as much as possible in my 2 weeks here, which suddenly doesn't seem like much time at all. As usually happens when traveling, I clicked with a Canadian traveler who has so far done 3.5 months in SE Asia, traveling with people she meets along the way. I have made the decision to carry on my travels with her, and try to meet up with my friends later on.

My new friend Krista is like-minded and an ideal travel partner; perhaps the 5 years age difference she has on me account for her budget-conscious self, interesting experiences and thus conversation. We share many of the same views about life and have similar aspirations for this trip, which makes for a pleasant fit.

We attended a free tour through "Hanoi Kids." We paid the standard fees for taxis, museum tickets and food, but had two Vietnamese girls guide us around, who in return got to practice their English. One of my favorite aspects of traveling is befriending and learning from the locals. Instead of reading pamphlets, we had Kat and Thau verbalizing their knowledge to us. We learned of the millions of minority tribes living in remote mountains to this day: speaking their own languages, practicing their own religions, surviving often on basic hunter-gatherer tasks and completely secluded from the modern world and the majority of Vietnam.

I was surprised to learn that most Vietnamese are not Buddhist as I assumed; they are not very religious people other than their standard belief in an Afterworld. My other favorite aspect of traveling is, of course, eating, so combining my two favorite activites makes for a very happy Andrea: eating with the locals! Kat and Thau took us to a popular local spot in town that was slammed with their lunch rush. We let them do the ordering: Vietnamese pancakes, mango shrimp salad, crab and snail soup, and coconut jelly sweet soups for dessert. I have really been enjoying the freshness and lightness of Vietnamese cuisine - completely different from Thai food.

Neither of our new friends had left Vietnam before, or seen half the places we will in 2 weeks in their country. They were astonished at how many countries we've both been to before, really putting it in perspective for us just how lucky we are. I asked Kat if she'd ever tried Thai food seeing as there are a few Thai restaurants in Hanoi and she had not - she'd never even met anyone Thai! What different, but parallel (in the sense of never crossing paths) lives the Southeast Asian countries live.

Yesterday was been a pretty big letdown, as we traveled 3 hours to Halong Bay for what was to be a 3 day trip, but we were told we must turn around due to the fog. Although we'll get refunded, I won't have time to see Halong Bay and have wasted a day of my trip on the unnecessary travel to & fro. As these things happen when traveling, we must look on the bright side: I have the day to spend with my friends who have just arrived in Hanoi, and will have more time in the south where it's warmer (I can finally change out of the one warm outfit I've been rocking!) I will make a point to return to Northern Vietnam to the beautiful Halong Bay at a more optimum time of year before I leave this part of the world.

Despite having wasted 7 hours on a bus today, allowing ample time for blog writing, being left with my thoughts and ultimate Asia tour playlist while driving through the scenic backdrop of rice paddies in Northern Vietnam isn't so bad. Along with many naive travelers believing the world is our oyster, I feel, in the epitome of my youth and the beginning of my traveling career, as if I was born to do this. These experiences: what I get to eat, see, touch and learn everyday in a new culture are more than I could have ever dreamed of. Every single day I count my blessings for the opportunities I've had as a native English speaker with a Western-valued dollar.

Krista and I were speaking of all the people you meet while traveling, and how odd it is that some may leave quite an impact on you, but you might never see them again. There was a British girl in our dorm the other day, insightful beyond her years, who I've already traced back her words many times. Having worked to be here, every museum and bus ticket is a proud expression that this is how we so choose to spend our hard earned money. A proud Brit, something you don't often find, she spoke for all those travelers who learn on such a trip where home is.

Living out of a backpack and feeling grimy, be it in my one warm but soiled outfit or the sweat-drenched summer clothes from the SE Asian heat, is beginning to feel standard. I'm mastering the art of 'packing light' - material possessions seem so petty compared to the experiences gained.

Nearly ten years ago, l started saving before I knew what I was saving for, but boy, am I thanking myself now. Currently, I may not be saving for a 401k, but I've never known more what it means to live life in the present, and I truly have never been so happy.

As usual, my mind is always all over the place. I am not sure how much sense my entries make to a third person, but sometimes, I need to put them out there, instead of just having them live in my private journal or jumbled mind.

Tonight, we take a grueling 24 hour trip down to Hoi An!

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