“What will you do in Vietnam?”
That was my brief conversation with the airport personnel who must’ve wondered why a lanky 20-something Filipina decided to pay a visit to her Asian neighbor.
As I watched the X-ray baggage scanner devour my gym bag, my heart raced faster as my brain processed what’s happening in five words: there is no turning back.
Ten years later, I’m writing these words, feeling nostalgic and grateful at the same time for having the chance to tick off an item from my bucket list and living to tell the tale. This is the story of my stay at Ho Chi Minh City.
Photo courtesy of TripSavvy
Very frightening first night
I landed at Tan Son Nhat International Airport past 11 pm. Since I was determined to rough it during my trip, I didn’t request any airport pick-up service from my hostel (USD $7 per night, with free breakfast!). I just assumed there must be taxicabs in the airport that can bring me to my hostel.
My assumption was correct, but my relief disappeared quickly when I realised not a single one of the taxi drivers understand or speak English.
Good thing I printed the email message of my hostel confirming my stay. When I showed that printout to the taxi drivers, one of them signaled to me that he can bring me there.
Less than 30 minutes later, the panic I felt at the airport returned when I realised the man in the reception of my hostel neither speaks nor understands English.
So there I was, standing outside my hostel at midnight, alone in a dark alley in a foreign country, struggling to communicate with the only person who can save me from spending my first night in Vietnam on the streets.
Immersion in the arts
Photo courtesy of Eviva Tour Vietnam
I spent my first day in Ho Chi Minh City going around their museums. I met a Hong Kong national (I’ll introduce you to him in a few paragraphs) who was willing to accompany an artsy Filipina in her self-guided tour of the Ho Chi Minh City Museum (formerly Gia Long Palace), Fine Arts Museum, and War Remnants Museum.
All I can say is I’m grateful I reserved the War Remnants Museum at the end of my itinerary. I left that museum with a heavy heart and ended that day questioning the goodness of humanity and the meaning of life.
Excruciating stomach pain
Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor
During my Cu Chi Tunnel tour, our guide brought us to an area where sheets of rice paper were left to dry. He broke off a small piece from one of the sheets, ate it, and told our group they were edible.
So I grabbed a big chunk of the rice paper and nibbled on it until our tour ended. After the tour, I had late lunch with my museum-hopping buddy from Hong Kong (we booked the same Cu Chi Tunnel tour) in a posh restaurant somewhere in the city. The food we ordered looked great and I’m pretty sure they tasted great.
If only I was able to eat them. I was in the restroom the whole time my travel buddy was enjoying his meal, seeking comfort within the four walls of my cubicle while begging God to put an end to my agony.
Photo courtesy of BestPrice Vietnam
The taxi driver who brought me to my hostel was the first recipient of my Vietnamese “Thank you.”
I started studying basic Vietnamese expressions weeks before my trip. I struggled with it but I pushed myself to master at least one expression in Vietnamese before I board the plane. In the end, I decided to nail down their “Thank you.” I thought that if there’s only one Vietnamese expression I should learn in my lifetime, it has to be their version of giving thanks. Not the first encounter I hoped.
Remember the Hong Kong national who went museum-hopping and Cu Chi Tunnel-touring with me?
This is how we met.
It was the morning after my arrival. I was in the dining area of my hostel, eating breakfast (freshly baked bread and scrambled eggs). I can’t remember now who between us approached and talked to the other person first, but I clearly remember us having the following conversation:
Me: “I’m from the Philippines. Where are you from?”
Him: “Hong Kong.”
I almost died of shame. I went to Vietnam a month after the infamous Manila hostage crisis happened, where a tourist bus full of Hongkongers was hijacked by a former Philippine National Police officer. Eight of them were killed by the perpetrator before he was shot in the head by a sniper.
And the Hong Kong national I just met is a police officer.
But in all the conversations, meals, and tours we shared together, he never showed any anger towards me for what my fellow Filipino did to his countrymen. He and I even spent some time discussing the crisis and what he and his colleagues in the police force thought about it.
No condemnation. No ill feelings. Just an objective assessment of what went wrong and how the situation could have been handled better.
I stayed in a dormitory room in my hostel. My roommates were all guys, save for the British lady who drank Vietnamese coffee with me. One night, while I was getting to know my roommates who were talking about boxing and Pacquiao—one of them invited me to hang out with them later that night—my travel buddy from Hong Kong knocked on our door and invited me for dinner with a Filipina friend of his who just arrived in Ho Chi Minh City the previous day.
I was torn at that moment, but I knew I needed to make a decision fast. I decided to leave my roommates and went out with my travel buddy.
Later that night, when I was already in bed trying to sleep, I heard my roommates enter our room. They pushed through with their bar-hopping escapade which I would have been a part of had I chosen to stay with them. Their conversation shifted to me missing out when I heard one of them say very few but very painful words.
“She’s not our roommate.” Five-second pause.
I cried myself to sleep that night. While I never regretted going out with my travel buddy and meeting my fellow Filipina backpacker, I did question why I had to go through this experience during my trip and what led to it. I must have pissed him off for changing my mind and choosing to hang out with my travel buddy over them. Or maybe it was the way I said I can no longer hang out with them. Either way, the pain I felt upon hearing his words was far worse than what that rice paper caused me, and the memory of it was far more haunting than that time I felt trapped while crawling inside the Cu Chi Tunnel.
Millionaire for a week
Photo courtesy of IndoChina Voyages
I felt dazed when I exchanged 100 US dollars and the money changer gave me 1,900,000 Vietnamese dong. I have never held that much money in my life. I felt like I was a millionaire who can afford to buy anything and everything! I spent most of that money on gifts and souvenirs for my family and loved ones, in case you’re wondering.
So, why did I do it? Why did I choose to travel alone on my first ever international trip? My answer can be traced back to that fateful day when I stumbled upon a feature article of a Filipina journalist. She said, and I quote, “Traveling solo is important for self-discovery.”
I was a fickle 23-year-old who was confused about her calling when I took this trip. I felt lost about where my life was headed, particularly my career. I was conflicted about my deepest desires and my dreams. I had no idea what path I wanted to take and who I wanted to be.
I wasn’t kidding when I told the airport personnel prior to my departure that I was going to Vietnam to think. But I ended up doing more than that. If you’re reading this, I urge you: travel solo while you can. Your journey may have painful twists and unpredictable turns like mine, but trust me, it will give you some of the most beautiful stories you’ll ever share in this lifetime.
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