“Hannah, just don’t go out at night alone. Don’t go to any bars. Never carry any money. Don’t go anywhere with men.”
My mom went on listing her rules for my survival. I concluded that I would have to spend my time in Vietnam sober and penniless in the daylight with girls. It was a depressing thought.
Little did I know that I would never be alone on my trip.
First night in Hanoi. Alone. A dorm of fresh, white beds. I was the only one occupying one until the short Aussie girl with brown hair arrived. She was a nurse from Sydney. We stayed up giggling the whole night and when I woke up she was gone, on a sun rise motor bike tour.
I meandered through the streets of Hanoi, eyes glued to my map. I watched water puppets, ate fresh spring rolls, sipped wine, and walked around the lake till my feet ached. Back at the dorm, a new crop of Aussie girls. Friends of the nurse. A blonde who seemed to be in charge and a smaller brunette. Informed me that the brown haired nurses’ girlfriend was coming late that night. Brassy blonde and the smiling brunette and I ate bun cha. Later that night, I listened to the whispers of the brown haired nurse and her girlfriend as they reunited in the big white bed.
Halong Bay. The boat that rocks. Aussies, Brits, and a few scattered Americans and Canadians. On the bus ride to the docks, the Aussie boys were drunk. At 9am. They had interesting insights like, “I love trees, guys” and “I love what Vietnam has done with the color gray”. The drunkest and loudest one jumps off the boat naked. His clothes are stolen. He is not so loud anymore. Our Irish tour leader is a dickhead. He is always drinking and talking about his cock. Later that night, as Kings Cup game master, he becomes the ultimate dickhead. Forcing people to chug whiskey and do humiliating acts. I dislike him very much. There is a British boy I laugh with, a Finnish boy I whisper with, a Maltese girl I dance with, a Canadian boy I have a ridiculous statue contest with, and of course the Aussie girls that I keep with. I am older than most of them and so I go to bed.
Hoi An. I’m sitting alone at a bar. A man sits next to me. He is from Indonesia. He loves music and wants to know my top traits in a man. He promises to take me on a restaurant tour tomorrow. He knows everyone in town including the guy in front of the bar trying to lure customers in. This guy is very annoyed with his girlfriend who will only talk to the Indonesian man. After awhile, I feel like the Indonesian man has gone past friendly and I look for an escape. I see a white-blonde haired guy with tattoos up his arm. He is alone at the bar and he seems interesting. He is from England and does me the favor of pretending to be someone I’ve met on my travels so I don’t have to sit by the Indonesian man anymore. We talk for a long time and he tells me to listen to the Maccabees.
The ATM doesn’t work. Two Aussie girls with fisherman pants and chopsticks in their hair accost me. “Are you traveling alone? You must have dinner with us!”. I come to their hotel later that night and sit in the waiting area with a magazine. There is a table of Canadian boys eating chips and playing guitar. “Are you traveling by yourself? Have dinner with us!” says the one with sandy brown hair. Before I can finish my answer the Aussie girl has bounded in the door and started pulling me out by my wrist. “Sorry boys, she’s ours”, she says with a smile. At our dinner of gourmet street food, she tells me she will bawl her eyes out when Britney Spears dies. We go to a bar and have hookah with the same Canadian boys I met in Halong Bay. The night ends with fast motor bike rides and street fights.
Ho Chi Minh City. I’m on a bus, dirty, and eating M&M’s out of my purse. I am slightly hungover and tired from flying down. I see a Korean looking guy but glance at him because I assume he doesn’t speak English. He comes and sit by me. He is Korean-Japanese and lives in NYC. We decide to find a hostel together. A bit lost and a lot hungry, we find one in an alley. It is cheap and so we get our rooms and then head out. Food is elusive and we are desperate. He is a filmmaker and has met Robert De Niro. I have never met anyone. We find an oasis of a restaurant and eat “Vietnamese tacos”. I drink something red with a heart stirrer in it. We go to the war memorial and walk through it in silence as he takes photos with his fancy camera. We walk for a very long time. He is looking for his twin brother that lives here, but I never meet him. Later that night, we eat French food. I have to leave Vietnam at 5am and he is disappointed.
I am on the plane to Singapore. The man next to me claims to be a vampire. He is obsessed with Angry Birds. His friend is much older and offers me a job in Indonesia. He buys me a sandwich. I like these guys, although I find them very strange. We say goodbye as they check-in their location on Facebook.
I am now in China, or perhaps not, for I am in Hong Kong. It is not very warm. My aunt introduces me to Matthew, a Chinese guy who doesn’t mind my whims and takes me to a strawberry farm. We cut strawberry jewels and put them in a basket. He is very sweet and jocular. We go to IKEA and eat Swedish food. He wonders why I eat it. I tell him I need a haircut and he takes me to a Chinese man who speaks no English. I AM SCARED. The man is SCARED. He grabs my hair and just chops at it, like it’s the tentacles of a sea monster. I want to cry, but Matthew assures me I look good. He laughs and calms me down as I take self-photos to assess the damage.
I am in line to catch the bus to see the large Buddha on the mountain. A woman behind me asks, “Are you traveling alone?” She is from Texas and is a geologist. I enjoy talking to her until I give a speech on why studying abroad is important and she fervently agrees by stating that all men and women should have to be in the military so they can experience the world. She also thinks America should own everywhere so then we can go everywhere. I don’t call this logic or sound thinking. Our talking winds down to nothing.
I’m back in Korea and my friends want to know how it was to travel alone. I’m not sure that I ever did…