“We need the tonic of wildness...At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
- Henry David Thoreau
It's a hot day in Vietnam. I can feel the sun burning on my skin. Two weeks ago, I was glad for every glimpse at some sunshine that would promise me some much-needed warmth after escaping the cold weather in Germany.
Today, as my heart is pounding from the exhaustion of a seemingly endless climb, I regret having ever had those thoughts. Sweat is slowly dripping from my nose on to my hands, which hold my resting body over the handlebars.
I have no idea where I am at or if I am going into the right direction. Do I even have a plan as to which way I want to go? As I am still debating whether or not I am on the right track, I force myself back on my seat. Has it always been this uncomfortable? I push my legs against the pedals and the bike starts moving forward. Uphill. The slight breeze I get from moving again feels good. Yet, my legs are shredded and every pedal stroke requires my full concentration. After only a few meters, I can feel my lungs burning. It's a sharp, increasingly strong pain. My breath is heavy and I keep my mouth open to let more oxygen into my lungs.
How long has it been since I left Hong Kong? I forgot. Time and place seem irrelevant here. Yesterday is long forgotten and tomorrow is so far away. I feel humbled as I begin to think how alive I feel. I am conquering my own aliveness by mindfully climbing some remote mountain in North Vietnam. Feelings of true happiness stream through my body, and I can feel a sudden rush of adrenaline. I am free. The hardship of physical exhaustion forces me to be present. Leaving behind a life that is taxed on either the future or the past. It's a hot day in Vietnam but this moment is the only thing that is real; therefore, I choose to embrace it.
A little later that day, I find a beautiful camp spot right by a river. I cannot believe how lucky I am. I see many good places for stealth camping all the time, but usually around noon, when I have too much daylight left that cannot be wasted. However, after this long and exhausting day of riding singletracks and tough terrain, I find myself at the perfect spot at around 5 pm.
I haven't seen another person for the past 80 km or so, so I decide to set up my tent and have dinner. Oranges, cookies and carrots feel like a five star meal right there and then. I still have no idea where I am at. Nevertheless, I know I am where I want to be. Alone. In the wilderness. As I step into the cold river to clean myself up and cool off for a bit, I realize that to me, this blank, unknown place in the map is the most valuable place. The cold water feels good on my skin. It seems to wash away all the self-doubt I once had. I feel clean, especially from the insight. A sense of purity. The wilderness needs my whole attention. It's a rough place of unpolished truth. You are what you are right there and then. I snuggle down in my warm sleeping bag and roll to the side. Tiredness overcomes my whole body, and I can barely keep my eyes open. What a beautiful thing it is – I say to myself – to be whole-heartily alive right here, right now.
This was two days ago. Or maybe three, I forgot. Our linear concept of time means nothing while we are traveling. As I am sitting in a warm hotel room, I begin to reflect on my travels through Vietnam...
Chúc Mừng Năm Mới
Tết, or Vietnamese New Year, is the most important celebration in Vietnamese culture. The word is a shortened form of Tết Nguyên Đán, which is Sino-Vietnamese for "Feast of the First Morning of the First Day". I entered Vietnam on New Year's Eve, not knowing that everything would be closed for the following three days. I was lucky to be invited in for tea (as many more times throughout Vietnam) by a family living in a small house in rural Vietnam.
We talked by using Google Translate and quickly realized that we were not so different from each other. Kindness, love, empathy and mutual respect are universal and do not require a shared language or a shared culture. Anyhow, Huyen, Huynh and their daughter Chi invited me in to spend New Year's with them. Quite the experience!! I learned that many Vietnamese prepare for Tết by cooking special holiday food and cleaning the house. These foods include bánh chưng, bánh dày, dried young bamboo soup (canh măng),giò, and sticky rice. as well as noodles. In between those meals we ate lots of fruit and delicious, homemade snacks,
Many customs are practiced during Tết, such as visiting a person's house on the first day of the new year (xông nhà), ancestor worship, wishing New Year's greetings or giving lucky money to children and elderly people. It is also an occasion for pilgrims and family reunions. They start forgetting about the troubles of the past year and hope for a better upcoming year. They consider Tết to be the first day of spring. Therefore, I got to meet everybody in the family. We talked, drank beer and shots, ate a lot of food, sang karaoke, exchanged well-wishes, and had an amazing time together.
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However, it was time to move on. So I left my temporary Vietnamese family and picked up on some dirt roads to head West. Roads were a hit or miss. Most roads I took were in very poor condition, since I tried to stay away from major cities and touristy areas. Traffic picked up after Tết, but it was not as bad as what I had experienced in China. However, I can see that many roads will be flooded and/or not good for cycling during monsoon season. I often wondered how people in remote mountainous villages will manage then.
The landscape in Vietnam is stunning. With a coastline of over 2025 miles, it’s no surprise that Vietnam has a ton of beautiful beaches. Yet, I spent my time in the mountains, and even there, the diversity of the scenery was breathtaking.
The rice terraces were carved over two thousand years ago by hand and are still inhabited primarily by tribes people. These mountain dwellers live off the land, planting and harvesting rice year in and year out in order to sustain their families... by hand!!! Nearly all of Vietnam has tropical vegetation with mangrove forests along the coast and tropical rain forests further inland. The majority of the lowland has been deforested for farmland.
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Vietnam's people are a special mix of cultures, languages and historical backgrounds. The one common denominator among them is that, as in most Southeast Asia countries, they love to smile and are genuinely interested in foreign visitors. The current population is approximately seventy-seven million composed almost exclusively of indigenous peoples. Though I heard many stories of tourists and travelers getting ripped-off and treated unfriendly, I have not made these experiences. Maybe be because I doubt that any traveler has ever been on most of the 'roads' I took. In most villages, I was asked to join a family for tea or to play some Volleyball.
People were genuinely concerned for my safety as a female, traveling alone. I was often offered help without asking for it or needing any. Many families insisted on giving me fruit to eat along my journey, and their happiness with a simple lifestyle is truly contagious. Everyone on the streets waved at me, kids yelled 'hello,' and I was often stopped to take pictures. They were very curious when it came to my gear and I was always happy to let people try out my bike or sit in my tent. After all, most of the fabric my gear is made of is completely new to them.
What really inspires me is the simplicity of rural life. If only moments and feelings could be captured by pictures, I am certain you too would want to spend some time in rural Vietnam. The mountains will offer you peace of mind, a moment to slow down and breathe. They will show you the true Vietnamese culture, of generosity and serenity.
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Let's talk wild fires
What we call controlled agricultural burning, seems to be of no real supervision in Vietnam. I rode past many wildfires and burning trash. In permanently cultivated (usually lowland) areas, fires are used to burn crop residues and get the land ready for the upcoming growing season. In urban and residential areas, people burn leaves, trash, and brush. In the mountains, fires may indicate permanent conversion of forest to agricultural land, or they may be associated with shifting cultivation, also known as swidden farming. In this system, patches of forest are cyclically felled, burned, cultivated, and then fallowed for a time. Secondary forest or other vegetation reclaims the clearing during the fallow period.
The fires in this region have been part of the land management practices for hundreds, possibly thousands of years, and they are not necessarily immediately hazardous. But they nevertheless have a big influence on air quality and human health, greenhouse gas emissions and the Earth’s carbon cycle, and biodiversity.
This leads to politics...
Vietnam today stands at a crossroads. It has been at peace for over a decade, but since the 1986 introduction of the "Renovation" that began dismantling the country's socialist economy in favor of a market economy, the country has experienced tremendous social changes. Some have been positive, such as a general rise in the standard of living, but others have not, such as increased corruption, social inequality, regional tensions, and an HIV-AIDS epidemic.
The Communist Party still exercises exclusive control over political life. I tried talking politics with people, but most Vietnamese said that they could only vote one party anyways or that a family member worked for the government. It seems as though everyone stands behind the socialist government. Flags on every house and socialist signs on schools, government buildings and public areas. Yet, the immense social inequality that I witnessed every day leads to the assumption that there is an economical conflict that could lead to societal and eventually even to political change.
Why I will never return...
Vietnam sounds like a bike-traveling paradise. Cheap food, friendly people, amazing scenery and awesome mountain bike trails. However, Vietnam is difficult. It puts me outside my comfort zone. It challenges me every second of the day, both physically and emotionally. I've never been to a developing country before. Vietnam has many problems. Its history is intense. Over the years they have fought off everyone, from the Chinese, to the French, and even the Americans. They are very strong, resilient and proud people. Ten minutes into the country and you realize why nobody can break their spirit. I must say Vietnam (almost) broke my spirit many times. It is tough if you are not able to communicate with people, which often times made me feel helpless and alone. I got lost so many times, I cannot even recall where I was for most of my days here. It requires a certain trust into the universe to keep going at those moments in your journey. Vietnam's mountains are tough to climb. I wondered many times why I was even doing this whole trip. I have bike touring experience and I crossed the Rocky Mountains before. Yet, Vietnam has me feeling a different kind of tired and exhausted at the end of the day. It makes me confront myself in a way that no other adventure has before. It makes me angry and happy interchangeably.
Standing at the river blocking my way after a long day, I realized that rivers don't talk. You can stand there, yelling: "why do you have to flow here? Don't you realize it is cold and I don't want my shoes to get wet?"
Yet rivers don't care where you've been or what you've done. Why it is you're standing there. They just roll on by, blocking your way. So as I push my bike, I realize the universe doesn't care so much to make this journey an easy one.
That's what traveling does to you. It forces you to learn and grow ever second of the day. I can choose the easy way and say I will never return to a place like Vietnam, because it challenges me. So by reducing my life to the basics of cycling, finding food, water and shelter, and navigating through foreign countries, I open the doors to create a new sense of being in my life. Therefore, on this adventure, I am learning to be more childlike in the pursuit of my tour. To choose curiosity over fear. To wander down a more obscure and intrigued trail that curves and dips and challenges me . To get lost and yet find something even better. To see the world with wide-eyed wonder. I don't know what tomorrow will bring. However, I learned that it is unnecessary to live in the future. All I know is that I am excited for the challenges ahead of me. And, of course I will return to Vietnam if I get the chance. Why would I pass up on the opportunity to … well who knows … let's stop speculating and living in the future.