Friday, October 27, 2017

A glimpse of Vietnam: another young (yht & privileged) woman travel blogs

Many travel blogs focus on what the person did: Where they went, what they saw, and tips and tricks.  I have not been in Vietnam long enough to tell you what the country is like, or how the people are - and without speaking Vietnamese, I really have no way of knowing. My experiences have all been positive with the Vietnamese people I’ve met. The places I’ve seen so far have been beautiful, bustling, and confusing. Similar to Thailand, the locals who work in tourist zones speak some English and the Vietnamese people I’d really like to talk to, don’t speak much (or any) English. The cities are similar to cities back home, but with a more rustic feel and more pop-up shops. 

Some memorable experiences have been with Vietnamese university students who’ve stopped me on the street to ask me questions and practice their English (often recording it to show their teachers). Their most common questions are “Have you tried Vietnamese food?” and “How do you like Vietnam?”  They are a bit flustered when I ask them questions back in response. One evening I spent over an hour sitting on the pavement in a circle, with a group of 10 students who asked me to practice English. They took turns referring to their print out sheets of paper and asking me questions, sometimes answering mine. 

Getting lost, taking risks, frightening and/or frustrating experiences that turn into great stories later on - these are the things I think of when I am reflecting on these past few weeks in Vietnam. Many times when I’ve been lost, without data on my phone, I’ve pointed aimlessly at my phone maps in the hopes someone will point me in the right direction. It takes several people before someone even understands what I’m asking (and then I feel guilty for not speaking Vietnamese). Some days I set out purposely to get lost, believing I’ll find my way back. 

Pictures do no justice to the breathtakingly beautiful landscapes I’ve seen, (Sapa, Halong Bay, Cat Ba Island) nor do they capture the adrenaline rush  of crossing insanely busy streets with motorbikes and cars that don’t stop for you, but move around you in some sort of traffic dance.  


I have spent most of my time here in Vietnam walking the streets, from busy cities like Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) & Hanoi to the smaller (more scenic?) places like Cat Ba Island and Sapa. I have written every single day. I challenged myself to hikes I did not think I could do, only to succeed. I swam on monkey island and watched cautiously from the blue waters as the monkeys appeared to be planning an attack on our stuff ashore. Halong Bay, one of the natural wonders of the world, was simply inexplicable. My favorite experience there was kayaking in the bay with towering rock islands above me and blue green water below. There is something about realizing how small you are in comparison to great world wonders, that somehow makes me feel full. 

Mama Mao’s Homestay in the Hâu Tháo Village
By far my most memorable experience was a three day trek into a Hmong village in the mountains of Sapa in Northern Vietnam.

As I stumbled off the overnight bus at 6am, Mama Mao greeted me and asked if I had already booked a tour. Having done some research, I had discovered that booking through a hostel meant they paid the local people minimally. The best way to do a home stay was to meet someone like Mama Mao when you got off the bus. 

Mama Mao showed me the trail we would go on to her village, to waterfalls and rice paddies. We agreed to meet the next morning at 9am so that I could have a day to explore Sapa’s little town. 

Mama Mao picked me up the next day as agreed and with my small day pack, we headed out. The first day was mostly uphill, muddy and slippery. At one point the downhill parts were so steep and slippery that Mama Mao and Mama Mae were both holding my hands preventing what they told me was “death time” if I were to slip down the steep hills with drop offs on either side. They also requested we take a selfie together. (#globalization?)

                                          (Mama Mae on the left, Mama Mao on the right) 

Mama Mae appeared out of nowhere when I was about to fall, gripping my hand and guiding me through rocky, muddy downhill paths. Though I later found out that really she just wanted me to buy something from her, (and after saving my life on the nearly vertical hills I obliged). She followed us for a few hours of the trek back to Mama Mao’s home. Though foggy and the rice had been recently cut, the views were still beautiful and I know it is a place I will to come back to. 

Mama Mao is 30 years old. She has 4 children and married her husband when she was 15 years old, having her first child at 17. Her husband doesn’t work, and their families income is dependent on her doing these tours.  She was kind and patient as I stopped to take pictures or catch my breath. We hiked many miles that first day and then arrived back at her home. I could only see two or three other houses nearby. 

Her home was two large adjoining rooms with cement floors and walls. There were several beds with mosquito nets, a room with a plastic table and then the kitchen - which had a small cement cut out in the ground where a fireplace was that cooked the rice, spring rolls and tea. There was a small hot plate in the corner where the rest of the cooking was done. 

With the trekking over, as the only person joining her that night, I read and wrote. I played tag with her four year old son and helped shuck corn to feed the pigs. The next day we trekked again from 11am to 5pm. The day after that, from noon until 4pm. My legs ached but I valued the solo meditative walking time to be in my own head. 

In the evenings we would sit around the fireplace and her family would all speak Hmong while pausing to tell me to eat more, eat more - in between lively conversations. 

I loved seeing the way Mama Mao and her family lived, and I was welcomed into her home as she does to everyone she brings there. New foods, such as fried maggots, also added to my interesting experience. A homestay is a must do!  


When I’ve tried to start this blog entry several times, this is the sentiment I keep coming back to.

Grateful for the privilege to be able to travel to Vietnam. The United States passport privilege, English speaking privilege, can quit my job and spend my savings privilege, sublet my room privilege — Privilege coats my experience in daily life back in the states too, but here it’s a different awareness.  As I navigate a relatively homogenous country with rich history and a new culture, I am aware of my otherness and the privilege I have to be here - when many of the Vietnamese people I meet have never left their cities, towns or villages. 

I am grateful for my two feet and able-bodied self.
These feet have traversed the globe. Walking up mountains I didn’t think I could summit, but listening to me when I say “I am going to try this.” These feet of mine help me see new sights. They help me take in breathtaking beauty in nature and bustling cities. From the rolling hills and rice paddies of Sapa to Halong Bay, one of the natural wonders of the world.

I am grateful for the kind, warm hearted Vietnamese people I have met who have brightened my days.  Grateful for the delicious Vietnamese street food that fills my belly after easy days and tough ones alike. Grateful for the few fellow travellers who’ve made lonely evenings more fun. 

I am grateful for this experience. Though I want to say it is “once in a lifetime” - the more I travel, the more I know this is going to be something I do for my entire life. As long as I can, I never want to stop exploring. 

Solo Travel: Lonely & Empowering 
Most of the experiences I’ve had thus far, from trekking for many miles in the mountains of Sapa, to walking around West Lake, to swimming on Monkey Island, to just daily adventures around the cities, museum trips — etc - I have been solo. Solo travel to this extent is new to me. 

Though I spent a year alone in Thailand, and many evenings in solitude, I had my Fulbright and Sansai community and a home to come back to - and I could speak a bit of the language - and I had purpose and a job to do. 

Now, each day is up to me. It is a daunting task sometimes to figure out what it is I want to do, how I want to do it, for how long. Free of responsibilities and lost in my overactive mind, I find myself thinking constantly about the world, politics, travel...I write stories in my head, analyze my life, make plans for the future, recall memories — all while taking in the vastness of the new place I’ve put myself in. 

Some days are lonelier than others. There are other travelers I’ve spent evenings and days with, no one consistently but someone here and there. While it fills the void for a day or several evenings, it lacks the depth and vulnerability of a friendship in which you know someone deeply. This I miss. 

However, I have enjoyed these lonely days in a new way. Pushing through them is a triumph. I am learning to enjoy those times when pleasant aloneness transcends into loneliness and back into pleasant. 

I am the only person I have to spend the rest of my life with, so I must learn to love my own company and depend completely and solely on myself. This is my ultimate goal - to be able to battle everything on my own, hold my hand, be my own best friend. 

Of course, FaceTime and some texting here and there keeps me afloat sometimes, but it’s briefly in the morning or at night - the days are just me - while my friends and parents sleep. 

So each day, I adventure, learn, grow, write, read, drink coffee, eat, walk, bike, jog, swim, kayak, hike and more. I do it by myself 90% of the time. It’s invigorating. 

This weekend my friends Anna and Alicia will join me as we head to a beach in Southern Vietnam, followed by Thailand next. Stay tuned! 


  1. Love reading about your adventures. Stay safe and I can't wait to read more and one day travel with you.
    Love Sam

  2. Wow Jessye you already look so healthy and vibrant in those photos. Love hearing about your stories. What is Vietnamese coffee like?


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