My time in Vietnam has finally come to a close. Yesterday I said my final goodbyes to my sister, hopped on one last insane motortaxi, and caught a quick flight across the border to Laos. This feels like a good moment to pause and reflect.
I spent 33 days traveling through Vietnam – almost 5 weeks – and I feel like I have seen a pretty broad range of people and places. I’ve dodged traffic in bustling metropolises, bought petrol in sleepy backcountry villages, wandered through old towns and been led through national parks. That said, I’m still an outsider, and I haven’t seen anywhere near everything. These thoughts will be broad generalizations, and you should take them with an appropriate amount of salt.
First, I think my favorite thing about Vietnam is the food. Pho, bun, bahn my, bahn xe, spring rolls fresh and fried, fried noodles, fried rice, coconut cookies, dragonfruit, mango smoothies, coffee coffee coffee. Even with the many backcountry rest stops and free hostel breakfasts, I could probably count the number of disappointing meals without taking off my socks. And it’s sooooooo cheap! $0.50 for beer, $1 for a sandwich, $2 for a big bowl of pho.
Even fine dining is cheap. On our last night in Hanoi, Liz and I decided to find the most expensive restaurant we could, partly to blow some of our leftover VND, and partly to celebrate her birthday which I may have forgotten (I blame jet lag). We ended up on a rooftop sky bar, gazing out at the beautiful skyline as we sipped fancy cocktails and munched on delicious bites. The bill for both of us: just over a million dong, or about $50. Trying as hard as we could to spend money, we still couldn’t match what one person might spend for even a merely nice dinner back home.
My second positive takeaway is of the general energy of Vietnam. As I wrote about Saigon, everywhere I visited felt like it was on the rise. There’s construction everywhere, and people seem positive and hopeful about their futures. It feels like if you’re hardworking or talented or have a great idea there’s plenty of space to rise, plenty of economic space to fill. It shows no sign of stopping. That’s not to say that the country is perfect – there’s a long way to go in terms of education, infrastructure, reducing corruption and especially environmental stewardship. But when you look around, the vision for how strong this country can be is clear. I think when I get back I’m going to find a Vietnamese index fund to invest in.
As long as I’m reflecting, I may as well do some introspection too. I’m just over half way through my time abroad, and I’ve learned some things about life on the road, and through them about myself.
I have had a constant stream of shallow relationships – you meet someone in the hostel, ask each other the same six questions, condensing your life stories into 5 minute anecdotes, partying or sightseeing or taking politics for a few hours. Then you part ways and never see each other again. I’ve met a few groups that formed on the road, but this seems to be the exception, not the rule. This is beginning to grow tiring, and I find I miss a deeper relationship, an easy and old friendship. Traveling with Liz the past 10 days gave me some of that, but we still met droves of new people at every stop.
I find that I miss, not work per se, but having projects to work on. I’m a planner by nature, I love watching something slowly come to fruition over weeks or months. Using that skill is a lot of what made this trip possible, but now that I’m here there’s very little of that sort of work to be done. The closest I get to a long-term project here is reading a long book, which isn’t exactly strategic. I find that if I’m not careful I start to get antsy and bored.
I have struggled somewhat to take care of myself. It’s hard to count calories when you’re eating out for every meal and beer is an integral part of meeting people, and a hostel is not a great environment for a regular morning workout. My gut is definitely bigger than it was when I left, my wind is shorter, and it bothers me. Exercise and fitness is a big part of who I am, and at least part of that part stayed at home.
None of these are deal-breakers. The persona I’ve presented through this blog, the carefree footloose traveler having the adventure of his life, is petty accurate. But part of the draw of traveling is to get perspective, to live life without many of the things I’m used to, and so to come to a better understanding of what is most important and what I can do without.
Practically speaking, if I do another long term trip it will look very different than this one. Probably it would be a “digital nomad” type trip, where I post up in some city or another for a season or two before moving on to the next while working remotely for an American company. I think that would be a more sustainable life in many ways.
It also won’t be for quite a while. By the time I get home, I expect I’ll have had my fill of traveling for a bit.
Not yet though – there’s too much exploring left to do! My next stop is Luang Prabang in Laos. I’ll just post one picture to whet your appetite.