In 2014, Vinh Nguyen, along with his older brother Truong and his childhood friend Phi, quit their jobs and headed off on 6-months long backpacking trip all through Southeast Asia. They had worked hard, scrimping and saving every penny for this adventure. Instead of taking the easy – and more expensive – road, they decided to live out of their backpacks and stayed in hostels for a unique experience.
They traveled through all of Vietnam, joined a lion dance troupe in Malaysia for Lunar New Year, and visited Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan, the Philippines. Needless to say, it was a trip of a lifetime.
Vinh hopes that sharing a slice of their adventure, the best slice, and the lessons that he learned will inspire others to listen to their wandering heart and go off into the world.
We all know the first step in getting to Vietnam is a very long flight. Once that’s out of the way, though, the real journey begins and there are many options: planes, trains, cars, buses, vans, scooters, bicycles, boat, and our very own feet. We did it all but the best way to see Vietnam was on a scooter.
The city streets of Vietnam is the definition of organized chaos. During peak hours all sorts of vehicles and contraptions filled the roads to the point that no cement is visible. If you happen to find yourself on a scooter, you’d be close enough to touch elbows with the person next to you, on both sides. At first I was terrified of the idea of riding in Vietnam. However, by overcoming that fear, I gained more freedom and removed limitations of where my feet could take me. Learning to ride a scooter was like unlocking a game achievement and the reward was worth it!
With scooters, we were able to visit a mountain pass in Sapa named Trạm Tôn (Heaven’s Gate). We were on top of a valley looking down a winding road that leads into China. It was a nice and cloudy day. As the sun broke though, we saw rays of light beaming into the valley, a sight we’ll never forget.
Have you ever slept in a room with 12 beds? Growing up with many siblings and cousins, I was used to sharing space. But that was family! The first time I stayed in a room with so many strangers, I couldn’t sleep. All I thought about was someone stealing my backpack and I’d wake up with nothing. It’s a hard feeling to shake but over time, I learned how to trust others and let go of the fear of my belongings being stolen…as long as I kept my passport and wallet safe.
Staying in a hotel or a private room feels nice but communal hostels offer a unique experience. One hostel we stayed in offered free beer for an hour every night from 6-7pm. Of course everyone gathered around at that time. There was a German man who had already filled out one passport and was working on a second. There was a couple from Sweden finishing up their 5-months trip around Asia. That lobby became an exchange market with everyone wanting share their experiences and hear ours. There are no shortages of friends while traveling.
We all love food and, if we’re being honest, Vietnamese cuisine is the best. There are countless things to eat in Vietnam, with each region holding true to their own taste because of their unique histories and the variety of local ingredients. The food speaks to how diverse Vietnam is!
One of the best dishes I remember eating was cháo lòng, pork organ congee. What made it so good was how we got it. After getting tattoos in Huế, we became friends with the artist and his apprentices. That same day, we hopped on the back of the scooters and rode 2 hours out to the mountainside. During the ride we got to see all of the countryside and, before we knew it, we were in the middle of nowhere with a group of strangers. For all we knew that could have been our last meal. None of us expected it to be one our best!
We also ate KFC on Christmas because we’re Americans after all and we wanted a piece, or 8 pieces, of home.
TRAVELING WITH FRIENDS
Going solo is totally alright but if you have friends or family willing to work hard, save money, then quit their jobs to see the world with you, well that’s just special. My brother Truong and childhood friend Phi were my home away from home.
It’s very easy to get yourself to a new place, but it’s not quite as easy to adjust to being alone and uncomfortable. Through this experience with Truong and Phi, I realized that home isn’t the material stuff you have in a house; it’s a feeling of comfort. When the people you trust and rely on are around, it doesn’t matter what your environment is. That feeling of comfort will always arise if loved ones are by you.
Yes, we argued and hated each other at times but, at the end of the day, we always went back to the same hostel together. A bond was formed that only we understand.
When traveling, the world becomes a smaller place and connections start happening if you’re open to them. Even within Vietnam, I was able to meet people from all over the globe and, through them, I felt more connected to the world as a person. Getting to know them also got me curious about who I am.
At first, I started looking for myself in the new land. But I quickly realized that wasn’t the approach I wanted. Instead, I started to create the person I wanted to be. I only had five shirts on this trip. However, I never stayed in one city for more than three days. With the same five shirts I was able to be a new person in every new city.
I learned that the only person that limits who I am is myself. When my environment is new every day and no one knows who I am, I stopped being stuck with a narrow definition of who I could be. Traveling is a great way to know the world…and yourself!
Tattoos are not for everybody but while in Vietnam, I didn’t ever want to forget what I was going through. I wanted every noise, every smell, every sight, and every sound to be imprinted in my soul. I had left a mark on Vietnam through this trip and so I invited Vietnam to leave a mark on me. I chose a tiger tattoo on my right calf as a reminder to take every step with courage.
I had it done in Huế, the city where I was born. After a mix of English and Vietnamese to get my idea across to the artist, the six hour session started. It was painful and I even thought about stopping. But I made it through.
Even though my tattoo is on the outside of my body, every time I look at it, a wave of emotions and memories flash through me. I can hear the heavy rains, see the dirt roads, and feel the warm bowl of bún bò Huế filling my belly.