It seems strange to be writing my last journal entry for the trip. It feels like so long ago that we were meeting in the classroom at St. Mary’s talking about leaving, and now our trip is coming to an end. Every day has started early, ended late, and felt long and full, but the trip has gone by in the blink of an eye. In the last 20 days we have been too hot, too cold, too tired, too hyper, too big, too small, too hungry, too full, and just about anything else you can think of, and I wouldn’t trade a single second of it for anything. We have done so much and learned so much every day here that going to back to normal life will be a bit of a challenge.
I thought I knew a lot about Vietnam before I came here, but obviously I was wrong about pretty much everything. I thought that the people were all going to try and rob me or rip me off, the only food was going to be pho, and the whole country would be a series of villages in the jungle. While I did have one small run-in with a local man in Hoi An who believed that somehow he had dropped all of his cash into my wallet and was not very kind in trying to get it back, I have discovered that Vietnamese people are some of the most welcoming individuals I have ever met. One night while we were out exploring whichever sleepy town we were staying in, a shop owner insisted that we sit for a while, share a few drinks, and meet his family. We ended up staying all night and talking, joking, and laughing like old friends. The language barrier completely disappeared, age meant nothing, race and background ceased to exist, in that moment we were nothing more than two groups of people brought together by fate, or luck, or God to remind us that the world is full of good, even if we hear more often about the bad. I can tell you, there is no greater feeling in the world than being 7000 miles from home and meeting someone who treats you like their oldest friend.
The one thing that I guessed correctly about this country was that it would not be clean. Saigon ( Ho Chi Minh City) was as clean as any western city, the streets and shops were well kept and the food seemed professionally prepared, but as we moved farther north, Vietnam’s status as a third-world country became much more apparent. Some things I was prepared for, others were far worse than I would have imagined. While walking through an outdoor market, I saw hundreds of pounds of raw meet sitting out in piles on the dirt floor of a market stall next to other lives animals living in their own filth crammed into cages small enough to dig into their skin. I could not imagine seeing those conditions in any western country, but people here had no problem buying the meet to feed their families. One stall had puppies in similar cages, several of which appeared to be dead already, presumably ready for sale to eat. The most striking experience of my trip happened the same night that I mentioned before, spending the evening with Mr. Hung and his family. After finishing some drinks with our new friends, I asked Mr. Hung if I could use his restroom, and I was utterly unprepared for the series of events that followed. Mr. Hung says a few words to his wife in Vietnamese and she waves me over to a small open doorway in the back of the shop. When I look inside I saw several things, first there were pots, pans, and silverware soaking in a wash bucket on the floor, next I noticed a small kitten chained to a bar on the window, and lastly I noticed the urinal in the corner of the room. I absolutely could not comprehend that their restroom was in the same room that they wash their dishes that they use to serve food to people, it was mind-boggling to me. After I left I noticed another problem, there was a urinal, but no toilet. When I sat back down I let my curiosity get the better of me and asked one of the girls in our group how they had used the bathroom in that room and she explained that Mr. Hung’s wife had told her to go on the floor and wash everything down the drain with a bucket of water. Growing up in any part of any developed nation, there is a certain standard of basic sanitation that you come to expect, and when it was no longer there, it created a moment of deep appreciation for everything that I take for granted in my life.
Overall, this trip was perfect. 14 people started off as complete strangers and 20 days later we have conquered every challenge Vietnam has thrown at us and we are already starting to plan for our next trip together (probably to Yosemite). I am excited to be home soon, but very sad to leave such an amazing place. Rachel said it best at breakfast this morning, “Today is the end of an era.” After we leave this place it will never be the same for us, but we will tell the stories forever.