Almost a country for every year of my life. At nineteen, I have been to 18 countries, 4 continents, and have spent roughly an accumulative three years of my life abroad. I seem to have the so-called wanderlust – I have been bitten by the ‘travel bug’.
My most recent endeavor to Vietnam brought me to question the deeper motivations of travel: what is the driving force of this persistent wanderlust? Though most attribute the desire to travel with the carefree adventure, the new cultures, experiences, and people that you meet along the way, a part of me questions why the desire for that is so strong. The travelling backpackers, the perpetual wanderers of the world, possess a certain gleam about them – a hunger for new destinations. So as I boarded my plane, about to begin the long journey to Ha Noi, Vietnam, I kept this in mind for further reflection.
After over 30 hours of traveling – nine of them spent in the Bangkok airport being told my name was “not on the flight list,” – I arrived to the complete and utter mayhem of Hanoi. Speaking to my dad later about the city, we exchanged ideas, concluding with: “it’s a combination of the urban chaos of Cairo without the camels, the horrific Balinese driving multiplied by ten, and an Asian version of street tacos in Mexico.” As we tried to make sense of the place, I realised what we were doing: we were putting it in terms that we understood, relating it to our past experiences, our database of countries, cultures, people and environments. Upon later reflection the metaphor was laid out perfectly. When navigating a boat, you need three points of reference: your current location and two others in order to be able to move forward. Travel, then, is the perpetual navigation through our experiences in life. We seek out these foreign places and they become a point of reference, an addition to our understanding of the world. The more points of reference you obtain, the better you can navigate and make sense of what surrounds you.
Vietnam proved to be one of these new points of reference for me, a new navigational marker in my understanding of things. The disparity between Ha Long bay and the city of Hanoi was unbelievable. Never have I seen two worlds in such close proximity and yet so drastically foreign to each other. The mythical Ha Long bay is proclaimed to have been inhabited by a sacred dragon in ancient times, who asked the gods for help in protecting the people and received a shower of pearls that fell from the sky, transforming into rock islands upon hitting the water. Protected as a UNESCO world heritage site it is virtually uninhabited apart from the few remaining 200-year-old floating fishing villages permitted by the government to stay. Amidst the alien landscape it is a peaceful oasis, an eerily beautiful, isolated bay with thousands of jagged limestone rocks jutting out of the viridescent water, tangled in desperately persevering vines. Juxtaposed with Hanoi it seems merely an ethereal dream.
The urban jungle of Hanoi is the epitome of chaos: thick, muggy air sits heavily upon the city, permeated with a pungent scent of garbage, wafts of dried fish, an occasional whiff of over-used hair product and the steamy smell of pho and barbequed meat being cooked on the streets. It lingers in the dark alleyways that wind endlessly into the depths of the city, a medley of ingredients comprising urban life in Vietnam. Legions of motorcycles appear from every direction, honking their horns with life-or-death determination, unrelenting in pursuit of their destination and fighting to the death for right of way. Tiny women carry woven baskets heavier than they are on bamboo rods filled with every imaginable object, inanimate or alive. The colours, smells, sights and sounds are overwhelming, putting me into sensory overload the moment I step out of the sheltered confines of the building.
Going to Vietnam did not leave me with the answers to my questions, and if anything it gave rise to countless new ones. But travel is not necessarily about finding the answers. It can be as simple as becoming aware that while we take for granted our ability to drive five minutes in a car to Morrison’s, somewhere in the world a 200-year-old floating village exists where a little girl who rows a bamboo boat to her friend’s house has never seen a car in her life. Travelling is about questioning our world, about seeking awareness of what lies beyond what we know, and about understanding our own reality. And while seeking out these new points of reference may not grant us all the answers, at the very least it keeps us moving forward.
Photography – Haley Scheer