The first time I set foot in Vietnam was 2 months after my 19th birthday. I had left college the previous summer bored and itchy, anchor less, wrestling with Sylvia Plath’s green fig tree and it’s too-many choices. Unable to bring myself to apply for any universities, I found a teaching placement in Thailand and applied for that instead. They called me and said they wanted to send me to Vietnam instead. I said yes, and just like that the decision was made.
I can remember the cold metal of the airport bench digging into the backs of my knees as I sat, twisting the strap of my brand new rucksack as I worked up the courage to go and make friends with my fellow teaching interns, none of whom I had never seen before. I remember how long the flight seemed, lying stretched out across a row of four seats as we flew across time zones through a sky that changed from blue to orange to black to gold.
I opened my eyes on the other side of the world as the plane landed, and emerged blinking into the bright smog of Saigon. I remember it as nothing more than a blur of colours; hundreds of motorbikes flashing red-blue-black on the street outside, peeling pink and green buildings painted with strange curling letters, a rainbow of flower sellers and food stalls. The whole world was full of movement and noise; people shouting, horns blaring.
That was the first time I felt the peculiar intoxicating fear and excitement bubbling through my veins, a feeling that only comes from stepping out into a place as yet unknown, with all its adventures ahead. I breathed in new air that tasted of salt and oil and smelled of blooming rot, and I didn’t yet realise how much this place would bury itself into my heart.
I lived in Vietnam for 6 months, in a concrete house which flooded when it rained. I rode my bicycle to the English classes I taught at the local University campus, flying down roads that just weeks previously I had been afraid to cross. I drank coffee with my Vietnamese friends and rode on the back of a motorbike and shopped at markets where not one person spoke any English, finding ways to communicate despite my terrible Vietnamese.
I loved it all; the people, the chaos, the innate differentness. The lingering sadness of a place that has been terribly wounded, and the infectious optimism of regrowth. I loved the grit and the pace of the cities and the way that they sat like determined banners for the future amongst jewel green rice paddies full of history and tradition.
And I loved the food. I loved the baskets of condiments and the tiny plastic stools at aluminium tables. I loved the fresh, bitter herbs and the hot spike of chillies, the endless variety of noodles, the fragrant soups.
I always promised myself then that I would return, and last year I did. I walked off a plane from Kuala Lumpur and out into the noisy, dirty, chaotic streets of the place where everything began. It felt like home in the strangest way, at once familiar and irrevocably changed. Walking the narrow alleyways of Pham Ngu Lao in the pale orange haze of dusk was a lesson in surrealism, memories etched into every corner but some long covered by thick layers of fresh paint. So much change, and yet the air still smelled the same, tasted the same.
When I first journeyed to Vietnam, it was 2007 and the country wasn’t yet on the standard gap year trail. There were very few backpackers buying motorbikes to ride to Hanoi, nowhere near as many ‘party hostels’, and everyone I told about my plans was very free with their opinion that it was ‘not a safe place for a young girl to go by herself’. Nowadays of course it is much more travelled, and that is evident in the improved bus journeys, accommodation options, and the number of shops and bars catering for the backpacker crowd.
But the pho sellers were there, with their awnings and their plastic stools. The xe-om drivers still slept by the road, prostrate across their bikes; and motorbikes still negotiated the treacherous roads laden with live chickens or plate glass windows or families of six. The corner table at the bar where we used to hang out is still there, newly painted but in the same spot.
Vietnam is the place that taught me how to travel. In its streets I learned how to be alone, how to make friends instantly, how to order street food and how to survive day-long bus journeys along vertiginous mountain roads. It’s the place where I learned how not to be selfish, how to be patient, to understand how incredibly fortunate I am. It made me less childish, more independent, braver. I owe it a lot. I have so many stories to tell of it’s beauty, it’s people and it’s food. But for now, just this one thought – the people and places that we truly love keep pieces of our hearts with them when we leave; and though they may change in our absence, they will always feel like home.