Travels in Vietnam, Part III

By Stina Sieg | Nov 13, 2011
Photo by: Stina Sieg Nothing crosses cultural and language divides like a cute baby. I met this one in Sapa.

Something happens to time the last few days of any trip I’m on. As the end nears, the future and the present start to blend and while I do try to focus on the here and now, my mind wonders back home, wherever that happens to be.

After almost three weeks in Vietnam, this started happening to me. In the midst of bowls of steaming pho and crawling taxi rides, I found myself thinking about North Carolina in a way I could not shake. I honestly couldn’t tell if I was dreading or looking forward to being here again, but Waynesville was becoming just one more part of my everyday Vietnam reality.

In bustling Hanoi, that wasn’t such a bad thing. Thinking about home was a brief oasis from the barrage of everything and everyone coming at me all the time. That place, where it seems everyone is trying to sell you something or scam you (or both), reminded me how uniformly solitary and polite small-town America actually is. In Vietnam’s capital, people made no bones about pushing past you on the street or smiling as they quoted a taxi fare that was inflated by three times. This kind of thing was as endless as it was unstoppable, anad it took me days to come to grips with it. I eventually decided that the buskers haranguing me didn’t represent their country any more than the guys doggedly holding sale signs outside of mattress stores represented my motherland.

So, I stayed in Hanoi night after night. Part of me liked being in the belly of the beast, and another part was just enjoying my host, Huy. A friendly guy in his early 20s, he’d been introduced to me via email from a friend of a friend whom I’d never met. That’s a pretty distant connection, I know, but Huy (pronounced “Wee”) treated me like family. I spent a couple mornings and evenings holding my breath on the back of his motorbike as I was shown around. Fully out of my comfort zone, I remember clutching a tiny and pointless helmet to my head as we weaved through impossibly thick traffic and miniscule alleys. We always spoke in English together, as he was excited to practice, and the only Vietnamese word I had half mastered was “thank you.”

One day, he took me to meet his mom, who sweetly fretted over me and made me soup with rainbow-colored ramen noodles. Another day, he introduced me to the Temple of Literature, the country’s oldest university (1070 A.D.) and just about the quietest place in all of Hanoi. Somewhere in the sanctuary of its courtyard, graceful old buildings, brick walls, grassy expanses and large pond, he handed me off to Ruby, another new friend, who seemed equally excited to show me around. Even though I outweighed her by more kilos than I’d like to say, she was incredibly adept at maneuvering her motorbike with me on the back. We went to the monolithic Ho Chi Minh museum, which is filled with just as much real information and wishful thinking as you would expect, and then to lunch at the kind of tiny street restaurant where tourists never venture. I can’t remember what we talked about, just that it was extremely friendly and good-hearted. As we sat on little plastic chairs and ate astonishingly cheap plates of fried noodles and fresh spring rolls, I could not believe how lucky I was. Somehow, I had stumbled off the beaten path and into something real.

It was enough to knock Waynesville completely out of my mind, at least until I had to say goodbye to Hanoi and my new friends and start my backtracking south.

Homeward bound

With just a few days to spare, I headed back to Hoi An, the quaintest town I had come across in the country. It had a way of quietly leaching money from me, but I still couldn’t imagine any place I would rather to spend a few more days than the cobbled streets and antique bridges of that city’s old town. This is not to mention Cafe 43, home of the world’s cheapest noodles and 15-cent beer, and conveniently located right next to my hotel.
When I went to check in I was surprised to see Steph, the Australian friend I’d made a few hundred miles back. Those kind of things happened all the time on the road, and they always felt fated.

For two days, I bummed around and soaked the place in again, doing all those leisurely activities that Westerners do. I chatted up the ex-pats and ate dinner with my old/new Aussie friends and got a few jaw-droppingly cheap dresses made. I tried not to think about home or work or the sobering fact that I wouldn’t be taking another vacation for a very, very long time. On my last day in town, got up early, rented a bicycle and pedaled two miles past rice paddies and water buffalo to a beach with hardly anyone on it. Before jumping into the rough surf, I sat on the pale sand and looked down the miles of quiet waterfront on either side of me. I tried to hold on to everything I saw. In that moment, my head was ready to hop a plane home, but my heart didn’t know what it wanted. If I hadn’t needed to catch a bus to the airport soon, I could have stayed there for hours. I still had one city in Vietnam left to go, but I felt then I was saying goodbye to the whole country and my rich, strange, fortunate journey through it.

A couple of days, four plane rides and far too few hours of sleep later, I was back here.

Wherever you go, there you are

After three weeks on Haywood County soil, I find I’m still coming back to this place. I’m paying my rent, showing up for work, shopping for groceries and hanging out with my friends, but part of me isn’t quite grounded. I’m somewhere between here and there, and it’s not the easiest place to be. While in Vietnam, I wasn’t just on vacation from Waynesville but from myself, as I was so distracted that I forgot all about many of my foibles. Now that I’m back, I realize they were just waiting here for me all along. So, like I always have been, I’m trying to work on myself between the photos I take, stories I write and early mornings I spend at WNCW. Every day, I’m returning more and more to my old life.

Still, there’s a little kid inside me that’s telling me, as she has been most my life, to keep exploring. This trip appeased her some, I know, but I think it also woke her up. I’ll try to subdue her as long as I can and buy myself time with road trips to Tennessee and the coast and such, but I know eventually she will get the best of me once more and convince me to take her somewhere else. Her voice is pretty faint now but persistent. Again and again, she’s asking me the question I think all incurable travelers ask themselves after every adventure:

Where next?

To see more photos and read more about this trip and others she has taken, visit Stina’s blog at