Hostels–the life of young travelers! I’m in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in Central Vietnam, where some of the largest caves in the world exist and staying at Easy Tiger hostel. It’s been quite an ordeal to get here. The quintessential Vietnamese phrase: Don’t worry, seems to apply to any question asked. For example: Is the bus running from Hue to Phong Nha? “Yes, don’t worry.” Is it supposed to be here at 1PM? “Don’t worry, sit, wait, …it will be here, don’t worry.” Isn’t it supposed to be here already? It’s now 2PM. “Oh, so sorry, but bus isn’t coming today, but don’t worry, you can still try tomorrow…”
A day later and in a different minibus, more expensive but a tad more reliable, I arrived to the small village of Phong Nha which is a 45-minute drive from the national park. On the way here we follow the Ho Chi Minh Highway along the DMZ line, which separated North and South Vietnam and I can feel the legacy of the Vietnam War. As in the imperial city of Hue, where the bombing devastated much of the city, this area was heavily bombed and sprayed with Agent Orange. Yet now it has become revitalized.
The typhoon reared its ugly head over these traditionally poor Vietnamese villages, tearing tree roots out of the ground and roofs off of homes. The villages around Phong Nha have been without power since then. With the help of a generator at the hostel, electricity has been turned on for an hour and western music is blasting.
I can see why young travelers group together in these self-contained safe zones. Like the green zone, it’s local because of the geographical location, but in fact, it’s more of a neutral zone; a way of maintaining a sense of identity while exposed to the new environment. Over here you meet young people from all over the world, with similar interests to your own, that speak English. With outdoor street sitting, travelers congregate to drink beer and chat, getting a break from the oppressive humidity of the monsoon period.
It’s been pretty common to see young people, in their early 20s, traveling as a group just after finishing university. I have been pretty surprised not to encounter many travelers on their own. At the hostel, there is detachment about age, which seems to suit me fine. Happily, I’m not seen as a middle-aged woman or as old, just older… maybe wiser? I am in a traveler’s in-between stage. Till now, I haven’t met anyone else like myself. The few people I met traveling alone are mostly younger. Let’s just say that my particular age seems like a tough one for the independent traveler. This is a time in life when most people are not keen on traveling on their own. Maybe they look for secure feedback, from a lover or a friend? Or they travel in groups to fill an emotional gap that traveling alone can produce?
The question of traveling alone comes back often as I encounter Vietnamese people. The first question is usually, where are you from? Then, what’s your name? And lastly, are you traveling on your own? I find that when I say, Yes, I’m on my own, there’s a common reaction of surprise. The follow up question is, how long are you here for? When I say, three months, they inevitably laugh, a kind of nervous laugh. I’m not sure what it means in their culture, but I can guess it’s a sense of wonder about something completely foreign, not unlike what I experience when traveling in their country: A sense of wonder and surprise. In Vietnam, a culture that is rooted in familial obligations, responsibilities to elders, tight familial bonds with little to no sense of boundaries, the concept of an older woman traveling alone for three months, really is a foreign one.
Even though the alone concept is foreign to them, I have found that they have great curiosity to learn more about me. I’m not sure if every traveler in Vietnam experiences this, but many times I have been taken hostage by endearing Vietnamese who were eager to practice their English skills and tell me about their lives and ask questions about mine. As I cycled around Phong Nha village and its nearby farming villages, kids and grown ups would stop doing what they were doing to shout “hello“. Even though it was as far as their English language skills went, it was very charming.
Today is one month of my undertaking and I am finding that traveling suits me just fine. I have a sense of freedom that I thrive in. Maybe I am not rooted to a locale or a family unit, the way Vietnamese people are, but I find this journey of introspection and curiosity emotionally filling. It’s a journey I could not have undertaken 20 years ago because priorities were different then. Maybe I am at the ideal age to undertake this journey on my own: Older, wiser, and curious – it feels just right to inhale it all in.