My mother always told me she was proud of me. That I was smart and thoughtful. That I often amazed her with my writing, and that I regularly impressed her with my ability to avoid credit card debt despite my chosen profession (shade). But when I told her I was taking a solo holiday to Vietnam for my 32nd birthday, she introduced a new adjective for me — brave.
The more I told people of my plans to visit the Southeast Asian country, the more the chorus of questions grew. “How did you decide on Vietnam? Why are you spending your birthday there? You’re going by yourself?” They’d ask with cautious concern and I, in return, answered them the same way I answered my mother when she asked: I picked Vietnam because I hadn’t been. I’m spending my birthday there because I want to. And no, I don’t have anybody to go with, so I’m going by myself. It was legitimately just that simple.
From the time I was little my Antiguan parents — well really, my mother, with my dad’s mostly agreeable approval — made sure my sister and I were exposed to “culture.” I learned about slavery at Baltimore’s Blacks In Wax Museum. I found out about Nazi Germany at D.C.’s Holocaust Memorial Museum. They even took us to Hawaii to visit the Pearl Harbor National Memorial so we could understand the importance of D-Day. Growing up my mother would say, “don’t act like you’ve never been any place,” and she was determined to make sure we couldn’t. I can’t say for sure why it surprised her that I’d cross continents for a history lesson. She pretty much molded me to be this way.
When I booked my vacation with Intrepid Travel I wasn’t confident in how I’d feel once I finally got there, but I found comfort in the fact that one, I would have a guide who was from the area. Two, the company specializes in solo travel. And three, that chosen profession that barely pays the bills, at least equipped me with communication skills that give me a certain ease when talking to strangers. The way Intrepid works is they take small groups of couples/duos and lone adventurers, pair them with a local leader for the duration of their holiday, and let the magic of shared interests make for an exciting escape.
HO CHI MINH CITY
I knew from my first day in Ho Chi Minh City, where my “Treasures of Vietnam” tour started, that my trip to “The Land of the Blue Dragon” would be one that I’d grow from and often reflect on. As a first-generation American, my knowledge of the country rested solely on the history books of social studies classes past. If I played the word association game and somebody threw out “Vietnam,” my immediate response would be “war.” But I also knew that same war was one that MLK Jr. opposed, that Malcolm X spoke out against and that Muhammad Ali was willing to risk his entire career over. And so even if the actual place was as off-putting as its American connotation, I wanted to see it for myself.
Ngô Tâm, my local guide who told us to call him “Tom,” spent the first full day on the ground briefing my 7-person tour group on the history of the city once known as Saigon. I learned about the ingenuity of Vietnam soldiers, what the war looked like from the side of the people who call the country home, and how a communist leader rose to power and ultimately defeated America. Walking through the War Remnants Museum on my 32nd birthday, almost 50 years to the date of the My Lai Massacre, I realized what a gift it was to be there, in that moment, taking in stories I had never heard and adding them to my limited knowledge of such an important piece of history.
That night I shook off the somewhat somber mood of the visit with a birthday dinner Tom had organized for me. My new friend Sally White and her husband Tony surprised me with a card, and the rest of the group joined in on the festivities they knew nothing of just hours prior. Going into this trip I was slightly nervous about spending my special day apart from loved ones, but my itinerary was so full I had no time to process their absence. I, instead, was busy basking in the excitement of a brand new place, and making memories with people I would have never known if not for this trip.
When I woke up the next morning it was time for Da Nang. There, I was introduced to Marble Mountains, bánh mi sandwhiches, and the quaint little city of Hoi An. Lanterns lined the tourist filled streets of the town that brought back fond memories of my time in Chiang Mai. I had mentally prepared myself for this place — for the shopping, for the spa, and most definitely for the street food I had signed up to make at a cooking class at the Green Mango. When visiting Thailand I found that a culinary experience helps me immerse myself into the destination’s culture. Now I often add it to my to-do list when visiting a new place.
Hoi An also involved a 75-minute massage, complete with a motorbike chauffeur at a $20 price tag. And I knew I couldn’t leave the city without a custom tailoring experience at Yaly Couture. Their tailors took my measurements the first night I was in town, had me drop by for a fitting the next day, and by that evening they had sent a messenger to the Pearl River Hotel and Spa where I was staying, with the skirt, shorts, and high-waisted pants I had excitedly purchased.
HANOI AND HALONG BAY
Before I could get too hung up on Hoi An (trust me, the charm makes it easy), I was off to Hanoi. The city felt like Manhattan, New Orleans and Paris all rolled into one — tons of people, lots of traffic, and a certain je ne sais quoi you’d have to experience to understand. I personally felt at home among the hustle and bustle of street barbers and local vendors. And to see a city so alive brought me a certain level of joy I can still feel to this day.
The first day in my new surroundings I called it a night pretty quickly. That’s because I wanted to prepare myself for the 3-hour drive to Halong Bay that awaited me the next morning. I was eager to see the emerald waters and limestone islands that UNESCO designated a World Heritage Site in 1994, and they did not disappoint. But even more so, I was thrilled that I would be spending the night on a junk boat with adequate time to breathe in the experience. The following morning I woke up early, threw a jacket on over my PJ’s and wallowed in the beauty of an indescribable sunrise.
My time in Vietnam was slowly coming to an end.
That afternoon we passed rice fields and water buffalo on our drive back to Hanoi, and that night, we celebrated our 8-day journey with a water puppet show and rooftop dinner at Downtown Cafe and Restaurant. As I clanked glasses with my newfound friends over traditional Vietnamese food, I realized I had really done it. I brought in my 32nd year of life in a place I had never been, with people I had never met.
After our meal, we decided against a taxi ride back to our hotel and opted for a casual stroll through the town instead. I savored those last moments in Vietnam, reflecting on the journey up until that point while also looking ahead to the stories I would share about my experience there. I knew when I boarded my Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong the next day, that I was forever changed. That the memories I had gained on this trip were ones I’d reminisce on five, 10, 50 years from now. And even though it may sound trivial, that my mother’s newfound adjective for me was actually pretty accurate — I, in fact, was brave.
Tanya Christian is a News & Politics editor at ESSENCE. Follow along with her travels on Instagram @tanyachristian.Share :