“Can I fall apart now?” I ask Ben, holding in a deep cry until he leans his shoulder towards me. The stifled cry turns into a sob right in the middle of Hanoi’s downtown post office.
Week 12 tears right on schedule.
I’d been forewarned that there are certain emotional benchmarks when travelling. Things are exciting and fun at the beginning, but by the third month the frantic pace catches up to you and you start to feel lonely. At six months you feel like you’ve accomplished a lot by being gone for so long and you’re starting to feel really homesick to get back to comforts. At one year you start to get used to being on the go and you’ve settled into your new life. At 18 months you start to panic that you’ll never get to do everything you wanted before leaving. At 2 years you’re ok with going home or continuing to travel- whatever.
I think my 3-month loneliness is a combination of a lot more factors than just time, though.
It has a lot to do with the fact that we had become so comfortable traveling through Korea. We were there for 6 weeks and had a routine and lots of very dear friends. Ben speaks the language and we learned the public transportation system, which made us feel at ease. The entire country is beautiful, modern, and vibrant with so much to do.
We left Korea for Hanoi 10 days ago.
As opposed to Seoul, Vietnam’s capital city has felt small, dirty, and lawless. I’m sure this colonial town full of haphazard motos appeals to lots of people, but there’s just no chemistry between us.
I don’t say that for lack of trying!
We were staying with an old friend while in Hanoi who has been living here for years. She gave us lots of tips of where to go and even let us borrow her moto for the week to make sightseeing easier. We hit everything on her list (Hanoi Hilton, Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, Westlake, water puppet show, pedi cab through the Old Quarters, etc.) plus some of the daily life stuff we like to do. We got haircuts, ate at great (and not-so-great) restaurants, went to the grocery store, found a kid’s gym for Whit to play, and drove around every inch of Hanoi through the crazy traffic.
It’s just not for us.
Another reason my loneliness is killing me is due to our lack of personal connections. We miss our dear, kind friends in Korea and are in a weird timezone that makes calling home to America difficult. We were excited to stay with someone we knowing Hanoi, but we didn’t form the connection with this old friend we were hoping to and ended up wearing out our welcome.
None of these things would have individually been a big deal except for the fact that I’m more vulnerable and sensitive right now than I normally am. That’s probably due to the 3- month thing. Can’t escape mental biology, I guess!
We did have one incredible high point in the last week and a half: a 4-day trip to the mountains.
Our Hanoi friend is affiliated with a nonprofit group in the mountain town of Sapa which supports the struggling H’mong families in villages surrounding Sapa. Their organization arranges private tours between visitors and H’mong guides to trek 7 miles through rice paddies and waterfalls to the secluded villages. Visitors stop for a traditional lunch with their guide’s family then continue to trek to a homestay where you spend the night with a second family. You trek back in to Sapa the next day via one or two other villages and another traditional meal.
Not to be too dramatic, but this tour changed me.
The day before our scheduled trek we met at the organization’s office to meet with the director. She sat us down for an hour’s history lesson on the H’mong people and why they are considered the outcasts of Vietnam (hint: because of certain alliances they made with America during that pesky American/Vietnam War.) She also told us everything about their group and even showed me a pie chart of exactly how our tour costs are funneled. They do more to directly support a needy community than any other organization I’ve ever seen!
We embarked on our trek knowing that our money would be making a huge difference to two different H’mong families and that what we would learn could make a huge difference to us.
We were right.
Our guide was an incredible 23-year-old woman who is the sole earner for a family of 11. Her family was amazing and welcomed our weary bodies to their humble lunch fire with grace. Whit played with her children and helped us harvest her corn without every mentioning his Kindle or complaining about having to go to the bathroom outside.
Who knew you didn’t need electricity or store-bought clothes to be so happy?
When it was time to say goodbye to our new friend the next day I felt like I was leaving a family member behind.
Partly because I’ve felt starved for female companionship and partly because she was just so darn amazing.
Isn’t it everyone’s goal to touch someone’s life that much?
We just didn’t feel right once we arrived back in Hanoi. I really can’t put my finger on it, but we just aren’t comfortable here. We made plans right away to leave for Ha Long Bay, which we have heard only great things about.
We’ll stay outside of Ha Long Bay on Cat Ba Island for four days and then fly to the coastal beach town of Hoi An for an undetermined amount of time.
I felt a huge weight leave me as we booked our flights to Hoi An. Everyone who visits says it’s the most beautiful part of Vietnam. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site which means there are provisions against it growing too large, which has maintained it’s cultural charm. Due to the culture and beach location Hoi An has become a world-class destination for expats.
While we weren’t initially excited to be around a lot of foreigners, I now find myself relieved. I think it could be a great thing. We’ll be able to find a babysitter for Whit and other children for him to play with, plus some friends Ben and I can relate to.
And I’m ready to do whatever I can to make a local friend.