Friday, February 20, 2015

Lengthy Reflection in Hoi An, Vietnam

It's been some time since I've really blogged or journaled, at least publicly, outside facebook post reflections. There are a variety of reasons for that. But it's high time to get a post out any way.

I'm sitting in Hoi An, Vietnam, in the breakfast lounge of a backpacker hostel.
Since I had some cash taken out of my bag on one of the many boats coming back from Halong Bay, I'm a bit short of liquid cash I can access here in Vietnam by the means I brought with me.
To the person that took the cash out of my pack: I hope you were able to face your family at Tet with enough wealth to hang your head high. There is so much pressure this time of year for Vietnamese to show off to their families. Theft and suicide rates are up. I truly mean it, I hope it meant something to you and your loved ones. And thank you, for not taking anything else.

I've learned a great deal traveling, you always do, but here are some things I've learned of late:

  • Bringing credit cards instead of debit cards will help you be mindful of your spending and prevent the loss of all of your cards should the worst happen (whole bag stolen or lost), however, it can also leave you in a bind when the unexpected happens, like getting the cash taken out of your bag. In a mostly cash based country this is problematic. This might be made more acute by an extended national holiday when banks are closed. You will figure it out any way – book things through hostel world, agoda, sky scanner, and so forth – but it will stretch your creativity and bring your frugal mindset further into the forefront of your vacation planning than originally bargained for.
  • On a more vain note, if you haven't heard of or tried solid bar shampoo, you are missing out. I understand the bar soap in common use before the invention of shampoo was much different and considered less luxurious – but there are many new varieties now. I intend to keep trying them out; someday I'd like to make my own. However I've decided against attempting any projects involving reactions with lye in my tiny apartment for the time being. Bonus – bar shampoo won't explode in your bag the way a bottle could. Next step would be finding a bar that is shampoo and body soap to only carry one; they exist too.
  • You really do need less clothes than you think, but whoever said don't pack jeans traveling clearly didn't live in their blue jeans. I learned this one after Italy – bring your jeans if you are most comfortable in jeans! I would say the max here is two pairs – wash one, wear one. Less if you'll be in warmer climates most of the time. I was glad I had both pairs up in Sapa when it was around 5 Celsius and my first pair was in the wash after the mud hike.
  • You can get by with two pairs of shoes just fine. Again, I was glad for the second pair after the mud hike.
  • Despite all the minimalist packing tips, I've never regretted having 6 or so pairs of underwear in my pack. I've only ever regretted not having 7. You are welcome for that bit.
  • You can seek respite from the chaos of the city – but you will still be left with the chaos of your own mind. You can find peace and quiet in the middle of the motorcycle mayhem of Hanoi if you can somehow quiet your own thoughts. And you can be stuck in the loudest cacophony of thought alone on a bicycle in Hoi An. “Getting away from it all” is completely relative.
  • Human connection is one of the most important pieces of travel. I've experienced kindness and I've experienced scams, you have to keep both from coloring your perspective of a place too heavily and remember it's the people that make or break an experience. I'm not sure if this sounds as heavy as I've felt it this trip as a solo traveler, I think it's more something to feel for yourself.
  • We all have those days. The days when we wonder whether we can really handle life in Asia any more as opposed to somewhere else, or if we ever did so with grace. When we drown out our minds with our headphones, one wire of which we're constantly twisting to maintain sound – and wonder what it is we're really doing any more. Remember it's still a learning day. Put your pack down. Relax.
  • Understand that the reason you can travel somewhere “so cheaply” is because your nationality, race, mother tongue, education and privileges have given you an advantage over the local population you are a guest to. Don't let that lull you into complacency to be scammed, but don't push so hard to pinch pennies either. People tell me I'm awful at bartering. And I am. But you can't assume every person has bad intentions. It will do nothing but drain you in the end. Sometimes you have to think “her son will have something to eat tonight,” without ever needing verification as such, instead of thinking “I paid too much.”
  • I sometimes have such a hard time with first time travelers, more specifically people that “quit their corporate day job to seek freedom and finally travel the world” and shout it from the rooftops (usually in blog form) – at times (not always), that message to me, is lost in the sound of walking away from privilege and failing to acknowledge that not everybody has that much they could walk away from to begin with. Yes, the job was soul sucking, the clutter weighing you down. Absolutely cut those things out. Yes, you can live so much more cheaply in South East Asia. Have you ever considered, though, the amount of people with the English language capability to see the salary you walked away from that can never earn that much based on racism, passport status and other circumstances? I find it hard to bring this up, I am not trying to steal anyone's thunder or bring anyone down. I'm a blogger, and I'm certain I've been annoying. And I still speak from the privileged position of being a white, American passport holding, native English speaking, young, educated individual. Perhaps it takes leaving one's home culture, whether a lackluster job market or a high paying corporate job, to have this kind of perspective at all. It's not particularly helpful to silence anyone's narrative; but you were seeking a new perspective through this experience any way, right? I'm sure there are plenty of ways my own narrative irks others. I'm somewhat aware of that.
  • There are so many different ways to book travel and accommodation. Now I think, more than budget – I'm interested in finding places that fit with my personality. (Heh, speaking of traveler privilege). I've stayed in some hostels on this trip that would be considered part of the “banana pancake trail,” as a colleague referred to them with a bit of scorn. I've decided I make no apologies for falling into the banana pancake, easy-way lazy backpacker travel style for much of this trip. However, I'm not 20 years old any more, I never was and never will be up for a booze cruise, and no, French guy in my dorm room that I've never hung out with, I'm not getting up at 2 am to drink more because it's your last night. Budget accommodation can have many personalities, it's important to find a good fit if you can. Especially if you're doing slow or long term travel. Plenty of hostel experiences are much more laid back. My experience in Sapa was very different to that dorm in Hanoi.
  • Everyone has their own travel style. It's not just the boiled down stereotypes. I know so many people that scorn backpackers. I have been among them. “Oh I'm an expat not a backpacker,” full of self importance and cliqueish self-righteousness. As if expat vs migrant worker vs illegal immigrant vs non-immigrant (the actual title of Thai work visas) has anything to do with anything besides racism and (perceived) net worth. We're all full of it, truly. Every group has their off-putting traits, and I'll admit I understand which traits fuel the anti-backpacker sentiment. But I am a backpacker. I am a flashpacker (backpacker that needs Wifi and hot showers). I am an expat but also a tourist. I am a medium to slow traveler, and I get antsy if I can't at least get out and cycle, hike, or walk in nature even if it's just a park. Working to include more of that in my current Shanghai life with some day trips. Reflecting after my Sapa trek – I'm just happy to be off crutches and mobile again.
  • I should probably write less more often to avoid ridiculously long posts like this one.
  • It will be really hard to go back to letter size from A4 international paper size.
    Over and out for now.