My cat is not happy that I must leave for days at a time, but I promise her it will not always be this way. One day we will live together in a beautiful little home, and she will be able to cuddle with me in the mornings or in the late afternoons, and from the gaping window we will watch the sun set together. And I will write from my couch like a literate feline with plants growing all around in a man made interior jungle. Travel on the horizon, only as short necessary trips for career purposes. Is it passé to say #goals?
But for now I find myself in Vietnam at 5am sitting in an apartment in Hanoi, listening to exercise music outside because it seems to be a thing for people to wake up early and dance by the lake here. I reel from jet lag. The trip consists of, first Hanoi, and then Sa Pa that hems the border of China. But Hanoi is clustered and composed, a city that cares about its plants and its ancestors, with overflowing shrines in every establishment. Tall narrow buildings are the way to keep the building tax as well as the heat low. Each apartment is different from the next but all thrust their afternoon windows open and display the fine art of balcony gardens of bonsai and shrubs. The close streets overhang with old trees and long vines. People have been buying bigger cars lately, which has clogged the streets up, but motor bikes weave through no matter the narrow space, and why not? The rules of the road are dictated by what works, not what’s right. It’s just the incessant exhaust that builds up in your throat.
The culture all over, is lush, and well-worn, like a bracelet you’ve found in your grandmother’s drawer. From some time and place, Southeast Asian yet cosmopolitan, a country that has taken from every culture in a happy distain of what has been taken of it. In all its names and all it’s resistance, it essentially reminds me of the outcome of a life forged with the muscle of the generation before, a solid kind. Because it must. Like the deep pressure placed in the center of a medium to push out the sides and make a bowl. There are graves in the rice paddies, not without sadness, but with a strength that presence brings. The understanding of comfort and beauty in work. Like tension of a thread pulled hard to make a jacket, it’s a study of what is needed when: to make a garden of a city despite suffocating pollution.
I needed to see more in the short time I had, with a full free day. I bought, in a last minute frenzy a day long tour to Ninh Binh on a cheap, involved tour group with travelers from all over the world. I didn’t know I was about to engage in an ancient ritual of cultural othering that led me to feel strange and constipated, and ultimately, gave me a clear perspective on how travel has evolved from a long legacy of destructive behavior.
There are many westerners here, standing out like little white thumbs. Travelers make up of young backpackers looking for some kind of solution, or working professionals on vacation looking for some excitement and danger, or just some relief. And then there are teachers. There is a comfortable ex-patriot community here living at a close and separate stratosphere from the Vietnamese community. From a beautiful home in Truc Bac I can see the Pan Pacific hotel with its lit elevators ascending and descending making rounds into the night and they hark back to a time in my imagination, before the war, when Europe sprawled all over the world and the white men spent hours in places like this: an island in this city they would glaze over and never fully understand.
We take a sleeper bus to Sa Pa where we wake up to a town cradled in clouds that teeters between the recklessly tourist, like the Hamptons in July, to the untouched springs of Canada’s north country, but it also feels like the circus is coming to town because there are long lines of trucks bringing the land’s red dirt away to make room for a train that will zoom directly up Mount Fansipan where there will be a mall. Right now people are allowed to climb mount Fansipan but it is a strenuous journey with little oxygen and miles of walking.
In SaPa, on our way to see the Red Dzao villages of an indigenous population, we meet a young (white) man on the road to a small village. He is a classic backpacker, a wild look in his eyes, a kind of frenzy that seems to have proven the myth that if you can travel southeast Asia you can do anything. And you will, bless you, with your life before you. But here, you can set yourself free. For a moment in your young, viral life, without school, or a job. Without kids or a spouse he can move on his own impulses, and they are gentle and pure. Especially with the allure of Asia. More than Europe, stereotypically a place to receive culture and education, Asia stereotypically remains a place for intoxication and forgetfulness. Asia is a place for those of you who really lost your way and bought the story of a primitive agricultural community twisted into some kind of fever dream. So he joins us on the road in SaPa. The bamboo trees stand like skinny men along the road and disappear into the close clouds. We can’t see further than five yards away. It turns out he knows more Vietnamese than I would have imagined, speaking to the children along the path, one of whom is doing her homework while she’s walking (because no one likes homework).
Later the rain poured on the rocks and he said “it makes you grateful for what you have.” How sincere and genuine. But so out of context. What do we have? And what do these people have that is so much worse? And who are we to compare?
To unpack the way we think about travel means we must identify the reasons why we travel in the first place. Travel was once the act of colonization, of ownership, of a stake; in short, an annihilation like that the Native Americans endured. Travel was once a way to dissolve a culture like what happened with the aborigines in Australia. And then it was a cleanse, once the Beatles reshaped their music after a trip to India and that woman from Eat Pray Love also went to India and reformed herself. Young men like this travel to Thailand et al. Currently, to travel is to exchange. I don’t disagree that travel is a transformative and important experience that gets you out of yourself, that challenges you. But I also don’t think that you necessarily need to fly around the world to achieve these challenging feelings. I grew up with these strangers who took the form of city people who liked the landscape and bought houses in the hills of my small town overlooking the blue Catskills and lived their lives oblivious to the subtle, ingrained workings of the local people.
To engage in an illusion is to oppress the present. The activity, the people, the workings of the moment. How do we change the face of travel, and extricate the delusions from the practice? How can we uproot the inherently damaging visits from swarthy, ignorant strangers?
There must be a true understanding. More than a trade. There must be a surrender, so that you can earnestly give some of yourself to the strangers that surround you. The world is small as ever and the differences between us are being reimagined. Next time you go someplace new, think about how you can give yourself to the place, rather than taking from it.