Recently I had an incredibly humbling experience. One which, paradoxically, left me more proud of myself than I have felt in quite some time.
For those of you who follow my Jack’s Smack, you know I am spending a month in Hanoi, Vietnam, as part of a digital nomad experience offered by Remote Year. For those of us who work independently and mostly online, it’s a wonderful opportunity to live, work, and play somewhere else.
I chose Vietnam because I was intimidated by the idea of it. It had been every bit of 25 years since I last visited Asia. And I remember how overwhelming it was then. The noise, smell, colors, congestion – all an affront to my senses. Being in a land so vastly different than what I am accustomed to requires my full and complete attention. Nothing is easy. From crossing the street to shopping for coffee to finding a restaurant – it all takes maximum effort.
A Quarter Of A Century Later:
“So yes, Asia is far more accessible now.”
Of course, it is significantly easier now than it was a quarter of a century ago. Back then there was no smartphone, no Google Translate, no WiFi. I remember getting lost in Shanghai in a sea of people and panicking to the point of jumping into the first taxi I could communicate with to take me back to my hotel. I hired a guide the very next day to help me navigate the streets and surrounding towns. If not for that, I think the lobby of my hotel would have been the full extent of my China experience.
So yes, Asia is far more accessible now — yet still a major digression from our usual Western way of life. Like it or not, spending time in Asia feels nothing, and I mean nothing, like being in the States. Or Europe for that matter. More seasoned, cynical travelers refer to Europe as the U.S. with an accent.
An Unknown Destination:
“China’s border is only two kilometers from the Lao Cai train station – which is the point of entry for Sa Pa.”
Last weekend my fellow Remote Year “campers” and I embarked on a journey outside the city of Hanoi, to Sa Pa. For those of you who may not know where this is — and I certainly DID NOT until recently — it is a town in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains of northwestern Vietnam. To give you some perspective, China’s border is only two kilometers from the Lao Cai train station, the point of entry for Sa Pa.
We left Hanoi on the 10PM Friday night train and traveled the eight-plus hours to our destination. I have to say the overnight train experience was the best I have ever had. Definitely better than the 40+ hour trip from Lusaka, Zambia to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania I took back in 2001 (which, by the way, was not a hard journey to best.) But this trip was even more comfortable than my overnight train experiences in Europe. Even with that, sleep eluded me. If my Apple watch does not fib, I grabbed a little over one hour of actual sleep throughout the night. My fellow bunk mates did not fare much better.
We arrived at the train station around 7am and then proceeded on the one-hour small-bus drive up the mountain to SaPa, car sickness beckoning most of the way. There we congregated at a hotel for breakfast. We were allowed some time to “freshen up” — whatever THAT entails under these circumstances.
Humility And Pride Await:
“I was ok, for the moment. BUT, not to disappear – just in case. I had no idea what was around the bend.”
After breakfast, our bags went onward to our homestay, and we then took the small bus to the trail head (the beginning point of the trek.) I was somewhat anxious, as hiking is not my forte. Especially this kind of hiking. The area is well-known for its trekking. And while not physically arduous it proved to be emotionally and mentally challenging for me. Fairly steep inclines and declines, combined with wet clay and rocks, punctuated by “oops, don’t fall off the side and plummet to your death” moments made for a grueling four-plus hours.
The region boasts some of the highest mountains on the Indochinese peninsula, including Fan Si Pan, Vietnam’s highest peak at 10,312 feet. The mountaintops —- when we could see them — had vibrant hues of green and yellow. The terraced rice paddies cascade down the steep valley walls. All around us we could see the locals, dressed in their traditional garb (NOT a tourist thing, they just do this).
Luckily, for me, one of the local women noticed my weakness and hesitation on this muddy, treacherous path. She immediately offered her help. And even once I got my feet under me, she did not leave my side. In full transparency, there were plenty of times where I had to let her know I was okay, for the moment. But I would add a request — a hint, really — that she not disappear, just in case. I had no idea what was around the next bend.
Her English-speaking skills at least existed. Which is way more than I can say for my Vietnamese knowhow. Even after three weeks, I find just saying “thank you” difficult. With a very lyrical language like this one, intonation is key. I just keep messing it up.
The Smack Of Humility:
“How much is it worth not to fall into a muddy ravine and die?”
So while there was no real opportunity for conversation, she did communicate that she was 62 years of age. It was a humbling moment. This smallish, older woman navigated the treacherous terrain effortlessly, all the while keeping me safe. For four hours, mind you. Four. The dose of humility was palpable for me.
At the end of the excursion, the expectation was that I would purchase some of her wares. Plentiful wares that she carried on her back, like it was nothing, the entire trek. Yet another, humbling moment for me. Of course, I purchased and did NOT haggle over the price. I mean, how much is it worth not to fall into a muddy ravine and die?
Overall, I am glad I went. It was an enriching, albeit uncomfortable experience. I walked/limped away beaming with pride and that is worth a great deal of discomfort, in my book. However, I don’t feel the need to repeat it. But I do recommend it …. once.
P.S. If this has piqued your interest in a remote work adventure, reach out! If you use my affiliate link, we BOTH get $$$ discounts.