My first week in Vietnam was hard. Hard, hard, hard. I feel like I lived a thousand lives in that week, aged a thousand years, learned a thousand lessons. It was like walking through fire, the heat forcing all my issues up to the surface.
Except this time I had no band aids to keep it all together.
At home, when I’d go through a tough time or learn a hard lesson there was always readily-accessible Netflix to watch, friends to see, even just a familiar room to stare off into space in. At home, in a familiar surrounding, there is always some measure of comfort and normalcy to help keep your shit together. You never quite have to face anything if you don’t want to – there is always something to distract yourself with.
When you’re alone in a foreign country on the other side of the world, there is nothing.
And so all my shit came out in a big raucous storm. Every hardship I’ve ever faced seemed to surface in that hotel room, and I hadn’t yet made any friends or connections in Hanoi. I woke up every day dreading the time alone, the time when everyone back home would be asleep and I’d be awake, no one to talk to. I remember my mom calling one evening and realizing it was the first time I’d spoken to anyone all day.
Like I’ve written before, this is not to evoke pity or commiseration, but simply to stress how hard it can be, the feeling of isolation. Especially when there is nothing familiar around you.
I soon found myself saying, “I should have just taken a fucking vacation.” How easy would this be if I was simply visiting the country for a few weeks, an end date in mind, no big year looming before me? I could make a list of places I wanted to see, hop from destination to destination, live by the seat of my pants. The thought of staying for an entire 12 months, starting a new job, settling into a life in the craziness of Hanoi……it was too much. I tried so hard to just stay in the present moment. This saved me, and also taught me something huge.
I wanted to travel. I wanted to see new places. I wanted adventure and nature and fun and excitement.
Staying in Hanoi, where the traffic overwhelmed me and the noises jarred my nervous system…..it felt unbearable.
One particularly hard night, when the tears came as soon as the elevators doors closed behind me to carry me to my empty hotel room, I had a thought.
What if I just took a vacation? What if I just did exactly what I wanted to do?
I had wanted to travel and see the world, and figured teaching English abroad would be the proper way to do that. Never one to do anything irresponsible or the least bit unaccepted, I assumed that the only way to spend a large amount of time in foreign countries would be by taking a respectable job in one of them, and working hard. Trying hard. Doing the thing that looked good.
But quit my respectable job in America and fly off to Southeast Asia for a few months with no real plan or income? Never.
I’ve always done things “right” in life. I think before I speak, I care how others will react, I’m responsible and sweet and not the least bit rebellious.
And so I decided that maybe it was time to do something “wrong” in life.
I suddenly decided to fiercely protect myself, my heart, my desires. I decided that the kindest thing I could do was think what I might say to my daughter in this situation, how I would care for her, how I would encourage her, how I would give her permission. I actually wrote myself a letter from this mother energy, and when it was finished, it became clear what I wanted to do.
I wanted to revoke my contract. I did not want to teach English in Hanoi.
I thought of how many people I’d told. I thought of the job I’d quit. I thought of the going away parties I’d had. I thought of the year ahead that I’d planned to spend in Asia, not in the US. I thought of what people might think and if I’d be judged and if I’d regret my decision.
I wasn’t ready to go home yet, though. I didn’t want to stay in Hanoi, but I didn’t want to go back to the US.
I wanted a fucking vacation.
All I can say is that my heart was pulling me away, to the mountains and water and earth. As I’ve met other people traveling through the city, I’ve learned that I’m not the only one who doesn’t care for Hanoi. It can be loud, abrasive, wild, a lot. When I told someone that I didn’t want to stay in Hanoi for a year and she responded with, “Oh gosh, I wouldn’t either,” I almost cried. I felt validated. Of course, of course. Some things just aren’t a match. And Hanoi is just not a match for me.
This is okay.
And so I was faced with a huge act of bravery – saying no. Revoking my contract, letting people down, encountering possible judgment.
And yet, I was doing this great big thing that I’ve been working on for the past 28 ½ years – honoring myself. Learning what makes me happy, and then doing it. Taking care of myself, fiercely. I’d originally promised myself that I’d stick it out for at least three months, knowing that it’d take awhile to adjust. And while I’m sure that’s true, “sticking it out” just felt like another thing that I’d always done – stuffed things down, assuming there would always be some sacrifice and misery, always keeping my happiness just below the surface.
I was really, really tired of that.
When I first came to Hanoi, I was chatting online with a friend who asked me, “If you were to stay here for just three months, how would you like to spend your time?”
Without hesitation, I answered, “I think I’d like to honor myself.”
And so that’s what I’m doing. A week into my stay in Hanoi I decided to join a free walking tour through a nearby hostel, and ended up meeting so many other travelers who were doing exactly what I wanted to do. (In retrospect, staying in a hostel with other travelers would have been so much better than sitting alone in a hotel room for a week.) I met some really great women who had similar itineraries as me, and we traveled to Sapa together not long after. It was such a solid confirmation – I could be a traveler, too. I met people who had been on the road by themselves for weeks and months. We talked about places to see and the best ways to get there and how long to stay and what things would cost.
I decided I wanted to be one of them, too.
And so I’ll go on in Southeast Asia, not as a teacher of English, but as a traveler. I hope to explore further south into Vietnam, and then make my way through Thailand, and Laos, and Cambodia. Right now, I have no idea how long I’ll be gone – maybe a couple of weeks, maybe a couple of months. I’m giving myself permission to not worry and think too far ahead. (Radical.)
I’ve found myself pretty grateful for this opportunity I’m saying no to – despite the money and time and energy I’ve spent getting certified and interviewing for jobs and making travel plans, I know that there’s no other way I would have gotten myself here, no other way I’d be able to find myself in this position. I’m still so glad I came. I feel like I’ve begun a new chapter, like there’s no turning back. This hasn’t been a waste.
If anything, it’s been a wonderful opportunity for growth.
All of this is to say: do whatever you need to do to honor yourself. Make yourself happy. Make brave decisions. Consciously decide to fiercely protect your desires. As a wise friend said to me the day I left Providence, “Your heart is smart.” It knows. Listen to it, and trust it, and take a deep breath, and know that no matter what happens, you will always be safe. Safe and loved and held. Always.
Sending all my love, from Vietnam.