That night in Hanoi, it was a delicious and unexpected meal.
The sun had set a few hours ago in Hanoi but the air was still hot and damp. My brother and I walked down a long street, dimly lit by passing motorcycle lights and the occasional lamppost. A wispy layer of humidity and scooter exhaust hung in the low arching trees and the humming of bugs was audible over the drone of the passing vehicles.
We had been wandering Hanoi’s streets for over an hour, searching for a restaurant recommended by our travel book. Sweat trickled down my back, and I sighed exasperatedly, slicking my hair back into a ponytail. I was exhausted, hungry, sick of wandering aimlessly and feeling pangs of culture shock as we continued to grow more and more lost. I walked up to a man sitting outside of a small shop and asked him if he knew where our restaurant was. He muttered something in Vietnamese, shaking his head, and I walked away, dejected and frustrated. I tried to take over the navigating but my brother, who, love him dearly, has the worst sense of direction of anyone I have ever met, refused to hand the map over. Irritation sizzled up inside of me. We took a right and continued down another street, it didn’t look promising. A giant pack of scooters was parked on the side-walk in front of me. I stretched my leg to step out into the street, attempting to wind my way around them. My sandaled foot stepped onto the dirt covered, sloped curve and slipped directly out from underneath me. I flailed gracelessly, knocking over three of the parked scooters and skidded into the gutter, crunching on a heap of dead leaves and scraping my knee on the filthy concrete. I sat there. The anger welled up inside of me. I was lost in a totally foreign place, hungry, homesick and covered in god-only knows what Vietnamese gutter grime.
I looked down at my scraped knee. It was oozing blood and the gash was filled with crumbled leaf and dirt off the street of a developing country. A feeling of twisted frustration rose up inside of me until it was unbearable. I would like to say that my mature, composed, worldly traveler self took a deep breath, got up, laughed it off and continued on unfazed. That, however, is not what happened. I sat, in a dirty Vietnamese gutter, on a dark street somewhere in the depths of Hanoi, and cried like an overtired toddler. My brother stood over me, gawking in bewildered confusion.
I cried for a few minutes, and then dragged myself to my feet, brushing the sticky dirt off of me. I said nothing, grabbed the map from my brother, and headed back in the direction we had come from. We came upon a well-lit and bustling street. I turned down it and began hunting for a restaurant, anywhere would do at this point. We passed a dilapidated building and on the other side of it a small courtyard, sparkling with tea lights and full of touristy looking people jovially enjoying steaming plates of exotic looking food, glittered like a mirage in the desert. My brother and I exchanged a look of mutual concurrence and walked in. We were seated at a small table, draped with a white tablecloth and ordered minty drinks to cool us down after our trek. Not knowing anything about Vietnamese food, I let my brother order for us. The drinks arrived and I took a long sip. The liquid was cool and delicious and the minty flavor gave the concoction a rejuvenating sensation.
The food arrived very quickly. The first thing on the table was a plate full of delicious, golden-yellow bread rounds that looked slightly akin to pita. A chicken dish was brought out next, and my brother showed me how to wrap it in the bread to eat. I piled some of the spicy smelling chicken on a steaming piece of bread, rolled it into a tight wrap and took a huge bite. My teeth sunk satisfyingly through the fresh, oily bread. It was slightly salty and lightly seasoned with savory herbs. The chicken reached my taste buds next. The sauce was slightly sweet, but the chicken itself was fiery hot and grilled to perfection. My mouth burned with delight. I bit off another piece. With each consecutive bite, the sweet and hot sensation came in waves, rolling across my tongue. The cool mint drink was a perfect balance to calm my taste buds when the rich spiciness of the chicken began to overwhelm me.
I took a walk on the wild side, munching on a few exotic looking fresh vegetables. I bit into a potato-like cube and closed my eyes as a rich bursts of flavor danced like fireworks across my tongue. I munched happily, feeling my stomach begin to grow satisfyingly full. After a while my eating slowed, and I sat chatting with my brother, nibbling on leftover pieces of the now crunchy, salty bread rounds. With a full stomach, surrounded by people enjoying a great meal and good company, I felt more at ease and considerably less homesick. The air had cooled slightly and was pleasantly warm. Tea lights strung out overhead twinkled against the night sky, illuminating the scene with a warm, jovial glow. I felt the sensation of community, an unspoken, collective effervescence, wash over me.
I’ve found that in traveling, sometimes the exoticism and foreignness feel uncontrollably overwhelming, and in any positive experience, there are moments of confusion or fear, moments when you just want to throw in the towel, turn around and go home. But part of traveling is realizing that you can overcome these fits of doubt, partly because you have to, but mostly because you’re stronger than that, and on the other side of those bursts of fear, of those tremors of uncertainty and bewilderment, are the moments that make your journey worthwhile; the moments that remind you that in traveling, as in life, the only way to go is forward.
That night in Hanoi, it was a deliciously unexpected meal and the luminosity of an experience shared with strangers that reminded me the journey may not be easy, but what lies ahead will be worth the battle of getting there.