Today is the start of my second full day in Vietnam, though it feels like my tenth. An inordinate amount of logistics went into getting to thisroom where I could finally unpack, open a book, a bottle of water and breathe. And to be sure, I find myself rather annoyed at this truth. I find myself annoyed about a lot of things actually: my inability to communicate with the locals, the weather forecast, my poor attitude. The problem is that I can’t stop comparing everything and everyone to that first momentous experience in Bali. Bali was my first love and Vietnam is my Southeast Asian rebound guy. You’ve made this mistake before, right? You try to recreate the same experience, the same feeling, the same euphoria that you had the first time you were with a certain person, in a certain place with a certain set of circumstances. That level of expectation never hits the mark (how could it?) and in the midst of all the shortcomings you miss all of the lovelies.
Like the lack of geckos. Or the bird symphony that greets me every morning and right after a rain shower. Or my bright green hammock. Or that despite the noticeable lack of English spoken here by comparison to Indonesia, the warmth and welcoming nature of Vietnam’s people is palpable. Or that the sheer beauty of Northeast Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay area is hard to imagine.
Nature is everywhere. Yesterday I kayaked through a small opening in one of the 2,000 emerald green karsts that speckle the bay and was transported into a place of perfect serenity. In a small ocean pond inside of a tiny green island all I could see were lush green walls surrounding me, all I could hear were the echoing bird songs in the space above me and all I could feel was the gentle drifting of the waves beneath me. Now if only those damn French girls hadn’t been there to invade what could have been the start of a lifelong meditation practice.
Yet such is the joy and the essence of traveling. Those damn French girls – Helene, Helene and Helena – saved me from yet another day of language barrier hell and I wouldn’t have traded them for all the dong in Vietnam. Much like my darling Mara in Bali, these ladies validated my gypsy spirit. They shared stories of pure traveling hell without once considering the alternative – not going. In Helena’s case, it is a matter of freedom. She has spent years getting through a law degree that’s left her feeling stressed out and miserable. So with the weight of her licensing exam looming above her she decided to stop, take a breath and see the world. Be free. Make choices for each moment instead of for her entire life. Stop planning every second of every day, every day of every year. I’m sure eventually she will return to Paris and get that license to practice law, but only when she’s good and ready and by her own choice.
So what if I was robbed of a few moments of unadulterated mindfulness? The day I spent on the waters of the East Sea with three girls from France served as an important reminder for why I do this and for why I need to get the hell over Bali. I’m here to be free and to live in each moment. Above all I’m here to cultivate a practice of living free of any expectation except one of personal choice. Traveling alone is an empowering gift because it forces you to make choices for you and only you. Of course in real life we must consider others in our decisions, but so often we get lost in those decisions and we can’t remember where we are or how we got there. Traveling by myself allows me to come back to myself. That doesn’t mean it’s easy; I laugh when people call this a vacation. A vacation is what I do with Sean or my friends, where I can relax and say “whatever you want is fine” and let someone else arrange transportation. This is much different, but it’s important to my sense of self-worth. It feeds me in many more ways than a vacation ever could.
It took a couple of days and some fellow nomads to remind me that my annual soul-feeding really is about the journey after all. Onward!