Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Vietnam, part II

I suggest you step out on your porch...
Run away my son, see it all
Oh, see the world
There's much more than this

-Pearl Jam

Confession: one of my biggest reasons for coming to teach English in Korea was the opportunity to travel. I had a good life in Seattle: friends, a decent job that I usually enjoyed and was sometimes good at, a nice apartment, enough money to see 7 Eddie Vedder concerts in California last summer.

But something has always been missing. I’ve always had this Pearl Jam lyric playing in the back of my head: “Run away and see the world… There’s much more than this.” There has to be much more than this, right? This itch to find a little bit of that “something more” started the first time I traveled to a Pearl Jam concert, and only got stronger when I moved across the country, got my tattoo (a move that was completely un-Megan-like) and went to Ireland by myself for three weeks. There is something more.

I have wanted to go to Vietnam ever since I first saw pictures of Halong Bay. One day I will see that in person, I told myself. And I did. Sitting on the top deck of a boat in Halong Bay by myself in the morning watching the fog lift and settle again over the limestone cliffs was incredible. One of those moments that makes you think about how big and awe-inspiring the world really is. And how lucky we are to live in it.

On my first morning in Hanoi, I remember walking around Hoan Kiem lake, and taking a picture of a phone booth that said “Vietnam” because I couldn’t quite believe that I had made it. And that feeling is a memory I will carry with me: no matter what happens from now on, I not only went to Vietnam by myself, but I survived, had fun, had amazing experiences and met friends who have inspired me in ways they will never know.

A few of those great experiences were: riding on the back of a motorbike, kayaking through Halong Bay, having a few amazing dinners and conversations with some new friends from California, going to a jazz club in Hanoi and hearing covers of songs by Elvis Presley and the Eagles, hiking through rice paddies with a Hmong tour guide who took me to his house, and having a foot massage from an… ahem…. handsome Vietnamese man.

In all, I stayed in Hanoi for six days - more than enough time, I think, to explore the major sites, but nowhere near enough time to drink enough fresh Passionfruit juice or iced coffee. During those six days, I went to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, Quan Su Pagoda, the Vietnam history museum, the Vietnamese women’s museum, the Temple of Literature, and the water puppet theatre. I also spent a lot of time wandering around the streets of the Old Quarter, and more time that I care to admit standing on the sidewalk trying to work up the courage to walk into the crush of motorbikes on the street. In Vietnam, moreso than in other places I have traveled, I talked to many other tourists: there was the Malaysian couple who seemed as confused by the map as I was, the Australians who I met at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, and the Canadians who couldn’t seem to figure out how to get their train tickets.

Although seeing Halong Bay was the reason I decided to go to Northern Vietnam, I was apprehensive about taking a group tour. I generally prefer traveling alone - even though it can be hard at times, it also gives you the freedom to do what you want, when you want. With a group tour, most of that freedom is taken away. However, the tour turned out to be one of the high points (if not the high point) of my trip. Our group was small - there were only 7 of us - and everyone was genuinely kind. My fear that there wouldn’t be enough down-time to sit by myself and just enjoy the moment was never realized. I think that if I hadn’t gone with the tour I went with, I would have missed out on a lot of great experiences: kayaking, singing karaoke, meeting great friends, seeing monkeys, and climbing a mountain that I was sure would result in my death (well, maybe I wouldn’t have minded missing out on that one).

Sandra and Adrian were the other Americans on the tour, organic farmers from California who had been traveling in Southeast Asia since Christmas. They had already been to Chiang Mai, Thailand, and told me about their boat ride down the Mekong river in Laos, making me wonder why I had never thought of the most obvious next step for me: taking at least a month off during the Fall to travel through Asia.

After a night spent on the boat and a night spent at a hotel in Cat Ba Island, we headed back to Hanoi. From Hanoi, I took an overnight train to Sapa, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It had been foggy and chilly during my entire time in Hanoi and Halong Bay, but the sun and clear blue sky were what greeted me in Sapa. By blind, dumb luck, I happened to have booked a gorgeous hotel with a balcony overlooking the mountains. I spent a good portion of my time there sitting on that balcony - despite the chill in the air - drinking passionfruit juice, listening to Pearl Jam and staring at the sky.

I was in Sapa for two days, and each day I went on a private tour with a Hmong tour guide. The first day he took me to his village, showed me his house and I met his children. The second day we went on a 7 kilometer trek through the rice fields to two other villages. It was muddy, sometimes steep, and alternated between being chilly and hot, but it was also one of the most cool things I have ever done. As we walked, we talked: he said, "many Hmong live in America, right? In California and also Minnesota?" He told me that two years ago his village got electricity - and later, when we stopped at a house for lunch, he seemed glued to whatever American show was playing on the television. We saw some animals, and I asked him what they were, and he looked at me in surprise and said "Those are buffalo, you've never seen buffalo?!" Then he told me to stand in front of them so he could take my picture. "Will they bite me?" I asked. He laughed.

That night I had dinner with Sandra and Adrian, the farmers I met in Halong Bay, who happened to also be in Sapa. On the night train back to Hanoi, I met two women who, proving just how small the world really can be, were from Seattle, one of whom spent a few years working as a park ranger in Acadia National Park, Maine.

I spent three more days in Hanoi, and one of those days was spent with Adrian and Sandra. We had lunch, walked through the Old Quarter, went to the Opera House, and then finished the evening at a jazz club, where I discovered my newfound love for ginger tea.

The next day, it was on to Hong Kong, which will be for another post. I can say, however, that even though I had a great time watching the Chinese New Year parade and taking a cruise through Victoria Harbor and riding the cable car to the giant seated Buddha at Po Lin Monastery, Hong Kong was a bit of a letdown after Vietnam. Even though it was so nice to go to Starbucks and be able to cross the street without fearing for my life, I found myself missing the incessant beeping horns of the Old Quarter. Perhaps I am romanticizing my vacation a bit, but that's okay, that's what vacations are for. All I know is that I loved Vietnam and have some incredible memories and friendships to treasure. Not to mention a new plan for traveling around Southeast Asia this fall: I know that I want to go back to Vietnam. I also want to see Cambodia, Laos and China. Life is too short to keep putting off the things you really want to do.


vicgre said...

Wow! Reading this was truly inspiring as are the pictures! Can't wait to read your next post.

Anonymous said...

I reallly found this intereting and informative. great job and wish for more. moom

FaithG said...

Wow, Megan! Great post, sounds like a beautiful place with such a variety of experiences... cities, mountain villages, river trips, giant buddhas. I am inspired by your adventurous spirit (good writing, too),

Love, Auntie Faith