It can get cold in Seoul in the winter, and with the skyscrapers
blotting out the southern horizon and what little sun there is in
December anyway, it stays dark. I had had enough. Being 5000 miles away from
anyone that I might spend a Christmas with, my calendar was free. I
checked my bank account, and tried to a find a flight that would get me
closest to the equator for the cheapest amount possible. Ho Chi Minh City–
left in a week on Christmas Day, 600 bucks. Seemed feasible.
I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City nearing on midnight, with no pre-conceived
notions of what I might find there. I landed on Christmas Eve. It might
as well have been New Year’s Eve. The streets were packed, the shop
doors wide open, firecrackers going off at every street corner. I did
a double-take as a short, black-haired Santa, wedged between his parents
on a motorbike, zipped between cars trapped in traffic. I reached for
my passport and checked the visa — sure enough, “Socialist
Republic of Vietnam” … THIS was the big bad communism they had warned
us about in school? Over the next few days I got a few subtle hints of communism
— at least the pop culture sort I’d expected to see. On the back of
the motorbike at night, I couldn’t see the monuments to the fallen
comrade. I couldn’t read the missing sentences in newsstand magazines
in the market, which had been there just hours ago in the same magazines
in the Busan airport. I drove right by the poster, two stories tall,
with an angry, beautiful mother (baby on her back, machine gun with
bayonet fixed in hand) marching forward across a field.
But, for now at least, no one seemed dour. Moms handed kids wads of
cash to spend liberally on trinkets and toys,
fried somethings on a stick, and beers; full-faced smiles
passed easily between old men; young boys and girls dressed for Los
Angeles flirted with each other and texted their friends on iPhones.
My motorbike driver dropped me somewhere close to where he thought the
hostel was. I wandered for 15 minutes, admittedly lost. But, I didn’t
care. My night was free and so too did it seems was everyone around on
me on the sidewalk.
A little jet-lagged, I popped into a corner store to pick up a
pick-me-up. I grabbed a couple bags of dried fish strips and a couple
of drinks I hoped were alcoholic, and headed back to the street. I
found a low wall facing a busy boulevard, plopped my bag on the
ground, cracked a beer, and just sat there watching the people roll by
while I took stock of what I just stumbled upon.
I was happy, genuinely so; and for the first time in a couple months of
winter since I’d first arrived in my temporary home in Seoul. Why? Was
it the 60 degree change in weather? I always prefer shorts and flip
flops, but weather isn’t everything. Was it the beer? At 4% alcohol,
that was doubtful.
No, I said to myself, I was happy because I had the privilege of
independence, the freedom to wander or linger whereever I felt. I had
the freedom to discover. Months ago, I was excited to move to Seoul to
do dissertation work in graduate school not because of knew what made
the city great, but rather because I knew so little about the place.
Sure, you google practicalities in advance (is there a bus from here to
there, a place to stay the first night, etc.), but then you just let the
city itself educate you. And now, I felt the same thing was about to
happen with Vietnam. I spent the next week or so, setting a few
priorities for the day (seek out this park or that museum), going out
and finding it. But, never was an itinerary inviolable — sometimes a
sound of music or a smell of lunch down a sidestreet leads you away from
the destination you originally struck out for, you go wander and soon
enough you’re discovering yourself someplace new. Before going to
Vietnam, I had quickly sketched out a plan to go from HCMC to Hanoi by
train. All was set except the tickets — until one morning at
breakfast. I chatted with a Cambodian truck driver who’d stop for lychee
on the way to work about his home. So intrigued, I hopped a bus to
Phnom Penh and 24 hours later was waking up in Siem Reap. That’s, for
me, independence. To be able to set your own path, using the collective
knowledge of guidebooks, locals, travelers as waypoints to make sure
you’re not missing something stupendous. But the rest, the rest is up
Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence Travel Writing competition and tell your story.