Traveling is exhausting.
It’s a peculiar fatigue, however, that arises from extended periods of being on the road. It usually creeps up and hits you at once, and at the most unexpected times. And there’s a certain indifference that accompanies that fatigue. At times, it takes hold of you as you arriving in a new city, and suddenly nothing around you sparks the slightest bit of interest. Occasionally, it surfaces in the lounge area of a hostel, and each conversation directed your way brings with it a heavy and cumbersome weight. Suddenly, your once social, gregarious self has pulled off into a corner. The feet that fervently took you to every corner of the previous city now seem only capable of a few dozen steps. A whole slew of activities, encounters and experiences lay waiting outside, yet you are perfectly content with resting your back against the door.
Fortunately, those instances for me have been few and far between. I don’t credit this, however, to an endless supply of energy and wanderlust, but rather to a very simple approach … diversity. Over the past ten months, I have found that what drives my passion for traveling and discovery, for conversations and relationships, for knowledge both given and received, is diversity. A diversity of experiences … new ways of moving around, opening your eyes, walking down a new street, walking down a familiar street, reading people’s faces and approaching situations … novelty in each of these cases breeds and fuels a unique drive.
After the third visit to a medieval castle, every little town in the south of France begins to feel the same, and the charm and novelty of the first one is lost on all of the rest. Visiting museums becomes drudgery. Night markets lose their appeal. Yet again, another temple in the center of another Southeast Asian city…these are the symptoms of the standard, mainstream travel mentality. And the cure? Diversity.
Yet when you travel long enough, even diversity starts to lose its appeal.
There is no feeling quite like waking up every day with no idea as to what day of the week it is (or even what month, in some cases), what that day will bring, who you will meet, what you will do, and where you will end up. It’s a clean slate that refreshes each day, a canvas that is wiped clean, which you get to repaint whatever way you wish, each and every day. And when you repaint that canvas each day, you have the experience of each preceding work to guide you, with the freedom to recreate certain parts, build upon others, and let new ones form on their own. However, after so many days of waking up to a fresh, clean sheet, with a palette of opportunity and the chance to create something unique, you begin to realize that the most appealing painting is the exact same one from the day before.
Suddenly, diversity isn’t so appealing. Instead, you find yourself seeking routine.
This was the exact feeling I had upon entering Saigon on a hot, humid April afternoon. Trudging through the outskirts of District 1, the straps of my backpack biting into my shoulders, sweat dripping from every square inch of my exposed body, I was exhausted. The chaotic swarm of motorbikes all around me seemed like a distant haze. Clanking and banging sounds from the small mechanic and carpenter shops that lined the streets became mere background noise. The Swedish guy from the bus who was accompanying my friend, Jennifer, and me on our walk to the hostel seemed like a nice guy, but the last thing I wanted to do was talk. I was exhausted.
Yet it wasn’t just a physical exhaustion. Actually, it wasn’t physical at all. What I was feeling was the accumulation of several weeks of traveling. Endless sprees of hitchhiking across the lengths of three different countries, followed by a few weeks of exploring Cambodia with Jennifer, had culminated in a week long, relaxed retreat in Kampot, a tiny town in the South of Cambodia. That week in Kampot was an unforgettable part of my trip, a period when I found myself assimilating to the local culture, moving in tune with the daily life, forming very dear relationships and becoming comfortable with the environment I found myself in. Then, before I knew it, I was back on the road, crossing the border to Vietnam. And as I made my way through the maze of concrete in Saigon, the exhaustion of a new place, of change, was bearing down on me with all of its weight, and I found myself yearning for those days in Kampot, for the same ornate canvas to reappear in front of me..for routine.
And routine is what I found in Saigon
Sometimes, when on the road, you have to try pretty hard to make things work out, but it seems that more times than naught, opportunity presents itself gift wrapped and waiting at the doorstep. In Saigon, this opportunity came in the form of a poster.
“Want free accommodation? Want free drinks? Want to earn a few extra bucks???”
As I crawled out of my top bunk in the Hideout Hostel on my second morning in Vietnam, these were the enticing words that confronted my drowsy, half-conscious state. Annie, the supervisor of the hostel, had just walked into my dorm to put these flyers up. They were looking for someone who would be able to work for a few weeks in the hostel’s bar, organizing and leading nightly activities such as pub crawls, trivia, and other events, while also bartending, socializing with guests, and helping out where needed. Essentially, they were looking for someone who needed a bit of routine in their lives. And within the next couple of hours, I had officially become part of the team, with my staff t-shirt on and ready for the first night of work.
There were some crazy nights..
..some busy nights..
..but every night brought a ton of smiling faces and glowing personalities from all over the world that made me very grateful for this job, and most of the time made me forget that I was even working.
For the first three weeks of April, Saigon became my home, and apart from that long-awaited and much-deserved routine, I also found a vibrant, welcoming city with lovely people and a nonstop energy.
Every day around 5 p.m., all of the parks in the city would flood with locals and tourists alike, and almost every available space would be taken up. For as far as the eyes can see, huge gatherings of generally middle-aged Vietnamese women would form every few dozen meters, all moving in rapid, synchronized motions to the same upbeat tune that would set the soundtrack for the evening. Interspersed in between these free aerobic dance classes would be small groups of Vietnamese men, actively participating in serious games of shuttlecock. And every remaining spot would be taken up by badminton, less intense games of shuttlecock, joggers, kids running about, groups of local students practicing their English with one or two foreigners, and pretty much any other activity that comes to mind. And the best part is, there’s always a group of locals willing to let you join in.
Here is a demonstration of shuttlecock done properly..
..and how difficult it is to actually get to that level..
And my time in Saigon would not have been as rewarding if it were not for the food. Every night before my shift, I would swing by the banh mi, or Vietnamese sub, vendor conveniently situated 50 meters down the street from the bar, who would always greet me with a wide smile, especially when I would return for my second and third (and sometimes fourth) banh mi within the following two hours.
And the late night/early morning phở, or Vietnamese noodle soup, which is essentially ubiquitous, from the place on the corner would be the perfect end to every work shift.
By the end of my three weeks in Saigon, I had gathered a colorful and unforgettable collection of experiences and memories. From the countless new friendships to the unique new work experience, I added a new chapter to my travels that I will always fondly remember, one that has allowed me to grow and prepare for the next chapter.
Having gotten my dose of routine, I wiped the canvas clean. But this time I wanted to paint it in a whole new style, wih a completely different set of colors. This was facilitated through the extension of my visa by another month and the purchase of a Honda Win motorcycle. With over 2500 kilometers of open road and some of the most stunning scenery that this part of the world has to offer lying ahead (and debatably, some of the craziest traffic), let the next chapter and a fresh new 100 days begin.