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Three years is a hell of a long time when you’re on the other side of the world. As I think back over memories of strange nights and endless routines, I can’t help but feel grateful. I stepped off a bus in downtown Saigon with barely even a vague idea of what I was doing in Vietnam. All I knew back then was that time was ticking away, and I was sick of looking out through other people’s filters. The future was shrinking, and I’d learned all I would ever need to know about sitting in cubicles. I think differently now. Vietnam has changed the very wiring of my brain.
I learned that it’s easier to see why we’re all different, but it’s our similarities that bring us together. When we’re comfortable, our default circuitry is programmed to check for anything strange or unfamiliar so we can find threats. Normal gets tuned out as background noise because it’s safe. But when I arrived in Vietnam for the first time, it was information overload. There were millions of new sights and smells and noises all fighting for my attention. Eventually, I learned that different is normal.
After I got used to an ever-changing cast of personalities and surroundings, I found myself drawn to the similarities we all share. Vietnam taught me to meet people on common ground, not to rely on labels when I was perfectly capable of seeing the full spectrum of life for myself. We all have smiles, tears, and, most importantly, the power to make somebody’s life a bit better. That’s what we share: the ability to focus on what brings us together.
Vietnam also taught me that experiences are better than possessions. When I moved here, I shoved everything I thought I would need into a large backpack. I moved across the planet with just a bag of clothes, toiletries, documents and a laptop. (And my girlfriend, but not in the bag…) Nothing has changed. Three years later, I can still fit everything I need into a backpack. The things you don’t need are cluttering your life. Time is more important than stuff, so don’t let your stuff take away any of your time.
I’ve met people from all over the map. People who grew up in comfort and those who still struggle because their roll of the dice wasn’t quite as fortunate. Judges and bricklayers, millionaires and security guards. No matter your income or your nationality, we all create meaning for ourselves. Every fleeting moment is a chance to create, to build the structure where tomorrow can live. Make a home for your family. Start a business. Write an article about Vietnam that’s unabashedly subjective…
Whenever I see something that’s distinctly Canadian, I suddenly feel very far from home. I think about white dots streaking by my windshield like I’m shooting through a worm hole on some dark and snowy back road. I think about dragging the tips of my fingers over cold lakes and sitting close to fires on those nights when winter comes blowing through the trees. I think about friends and family making new memories without me. I learned that you can’t have it all. I wanted to travel and see the world, so I had to leave home behind. The choices I didn’t make are also a part of me now. There’s a lot I’ve missed. That’s the price of living abroad.
I had no clue what I was doing when I moved to Vietnam. I’d never spent more than a couple of weeks outside of Canada. Every day in Vietnam was full of new challenges. Flat tires, strange foods, questionable sanitation and people too weird to be believable in any work of fiction. Through it all, this country and its people have become part of me. This country really is a special place. It can be crude, harsh and even barbaric at times, but there’s so much to love here.
The traffic is horrible, but there’s nothing quite like driving a motorbike as fast as you can on winding mountain roads down into a valley of terraced rice paddies and little postcard towns. There’s poverty, economic disparity, pollution, smog, and trash, but this country is undergoing astonishing change at the moment. There’s an economic resurgence here that’s reshaping everything. The days of war are long gone. Today, Vietnam is a “hotpot” of limitless opportunity. Art, music, and every form of craft are on the rise. This is a country where things are happening, and everyone who lives here knows it. I know it.