Before I delve into stories about our Vietnam adventures — FYI we have had some really rad ones so far — I have to admit something: Adjusting to Asia has been hard.
Asia is much rougher around the edges than South America, and as it turns out, I’m having a little more trouble getting into the swing of things than I anticipated. In fact, I find myself less mentally and physically prepared than when we left back in September of last year. Maybe it has something to do with coming off three months of “normal” life in Hawaii. Maybe it’s that Vietnam isn’t as easy of a place to travel as, say, Thailand. Maybe it’s that some of the novelty of travel has worn off in month nine. But probably, it’s all three.
I find it strange and surprising to admit I’m having trouble in Asia, considering I’m Indian and have witnessed/been a part of life in a Third World country, and I’m not saying I don’t feel really lucky to be here, experiencing things some people never see, but I’d be lying if I said everything was beautiful and romantic and just lovely all the time. And I’d be shocked if other long-term travelers never felt the feelings I’m about to describe.
Hong Kong was a nice transition because we stayed with a friend, but now we’re fending for ourselves. And it can be exhausting here in Vietnam — sidestepping speedy motorbikes, haggling like it’s a physical sport, figuring out the most effective way to say NO and the heat. My god, the heat.
I knew we were coming to SE Asia in the humid monsoon season, but seriously, who can cope with this? True, I sweat more than the average person, but here, I wilt. My hand fan helps but not much considering it’s just waving sheets of moisture-soaked air at me. It doesn’t help that the altogether dirtier air and streets make me feel that much worse. I find myself wishing for rain, since it’s the only way to keep temps down. (Post-rain days are actually quite pleasant.)
I may sound like a princess right now, but I’m just being honest. I feel gross all.the.time. and having a bit of an allergy problem makes it worse because the humidity makes my skin so itchy and uncomfortable. My favorite part of the day is coming home after dinner, knowing I won’t be going back out, and basking in AC, my new best friend. (I’m so thankful that accommodation is cheaper in Asia than it is in South America so we can come home to a comfortable private double room in clean guesthouses.) I was never this prissy in South America but I wasn’t battling such severe elements there.
But that’s just one side of our rough start. The other is that somewhere between South America and Asia, we got jaded — just a little. Not to sound like a brat, but now it takes a lot to impress us, and unfortunately, that’s one of the side effects of long-term travel. We saw so many beautiful things prior to Asia that going to the tourist spots X, Y and Z isn’t good enough anymore. As a way to keep things fresh, we now crave great experiences, not great sights. We want to interact with locals more and travelers less. (But we still love you, fellow travelers! It’s me, not you.)
But with this region’s procilivity for tour packages or perhaps the proclivity to be up in our faces (more than South America, in my opinion) and with the language barrier in Vietnam, it’s been a challenge to get them. From what I’ve heard, SE Asia is a backpacker’s dream because of well-oiled routes for travelers and English as the common denominator.
Well, we don’t want well-oiled routes and Vietnam is the exception to the English rule. To avoid the tourist scene, we ask locals where they like to go, eat and play, but, at least in Vietnam, they can’t comprehend going off the well-worn path. Most reply with tours, big cities and much-frequented monuments.
We have to work really hard here to get what we’re looking for. That said, after very persistent questioning and befriending a travel agent in Hanoi, we’ve been lucky to have already had a few really enriching local experiences. It’s just that it’s exhausting to get to that point and once one successful mini-trip is over, the thought of researching another is exhausting. We feel a bit burnt out, yet not ready to end things just yet. I don’t want to be jaded.
I’m thinking this is just a hump we have to get over; I’m already feeling better about it after getting out of busy Hanoi and away to the northwest mountains in Vietnam. But this is definitely not a feeling I anticipated. I guess it’s just the reality of long-term travel. This isn’t really a vacation anymore. (I mean, sometimes it definitely feels that way.) This is day-to-day life.