As with a lot of life-changing decisions in my life, my first time traveling out of the country was done on an impulse. I was 22.
“I’m going to Hanoi, wanna come?” Mich asked.
It could have been just a joke or a passing remark. Just like how your Australian colleague greeted you in the morning saying “how are you” with a big grin on the face and nothing behind the eyes. It was like that. But since it was Mich who said so, which at that point was The Most Important Person in My Life, of course I took it seriously. I wanted to. There was an Arabic saying that went “You never really know a sister until you have travelled with her”. I wanted to know more of her. And I did. A little bit too much unfortunately.
“Do your research!” she said and I obeyed. I skimmed through the Wikipedia page on Vietnam four times. That was more than I ever studied for Operating System papers. On the night before the flight, I fell sick. My body temperature rose, liquid oozed out of my nose, my head was squeezed by an imaginary wrench. Yet I went ahead with the flight. I wasn’t going to waive my RM600 tickets, no sir.
The plan was to regroup with Mich and her friends in Hanoi, so I took the flight alone. It was my first time on a plane, on a window seat no less. As I soared above the sky, I couldn’t help but think how lucky I was to be born in this century. Where flying was such a commonplace that a middle-class, white-collared worker like me could afford it. If I were born just a generation earlier, I might not even have a chance to get out of Pahang.
I was grateful, just to be alive.
As the clouds ran through the wings, so did tears rolled down to my chin. Partially, because I wished she could be there next to me.
Touched down in Saigon. I visited a nearby mall for a meal. Everyone was speaking Vietnamese, and I couldn’t really wrap the currency exchange around my head. How much was too much? Did I really look out of place? There was a Malaysian couple shopping for handbags, I didn’t want to be associated with them! I was a backpacker not a tourist!
Surrounded by Mongolian-descendant locals, it was odd to see all the advertisements featuring tall and slender Caucasians. Hello globalisation. But then again, Kuala Lumpur looked exactly the same. Uh-huh.
My exchange flight to Hanoi was delayed for 5 hours, so there was nothing much I could do but sat in the airport in front of the telly. It was a Hollywood movie dubbed in Vietnamese, but only with one male voice. That’s right, the entire cast – men and women, young and old – was dubbed by one monotonous male voice. It sounded weirder when they switched to a cartoon show. I stopped watching when it was time for a Hindi soap opera.
But I was a child of the summer
Early morning in Hanoi airport was cold. So I put on an extra layer of shirt. Still cold. I put on another. Until I ended up wearing the entire wardrobe on my back – 5 tees and a hoodie – yet I was still freezing.
The dawn broke, I grabbed a cab with an address of the backpacker’s hostel that Mich was heading towards. The cab dropped me off in front of a different hotel because he didn’t know how to get there. He could have ripped me off for all I care, but I was too cold and hungry to give a damn. I checked in anyway, bought two pieces of bread and ate them under the hot shower.
I came out of the shower a different man, ready to take on Hanoi. I hired a bike without a clue how I was supposed to find my fellow country mates. Yet somehow, I did. By fate or pure luck, I stumbled upon Mich and the rest of the gang crowding a back alley. I jumped off of the bike and ran to catch up with them. I was never going to be alone again.
Or so I thought. Until Mich found out that I have exchanged all of her USDs to local Vietnamese currency.
I exchanged all USDs at the airport
Back in Saigon airport, I was too panicked to distribute all the cash in my hand before exchanging it. Apparently, this was a dumb move as: 1) exchange rate in airports sucked 2) you could actually use USD in Vietnam.
“Why did you changed all of MY money? We are not even married yet!” She was furious and I kept quiet. When a woman was furious, keeping quiet was the right thing to do. I learned that by living with mom.
And quiet I was, throughout the rest of that one-week trip. I didn’t know the rest of the gang much. Mich was my only close friend. So it sucked not having anyone to talk to, to ask questions, to make jokes. They did have fun with each other, but I just sat there like a chump. My emotional switch had been turned off, there was no way of turning it back on. It wasn’t fair for me to be scolded that way. But I got to stay cool, it was my first time travelling and I shouldn’t let anything fuck it up. But she didn’t have to do that. But I got to carry on. Stop. Stop thinking Khairul. Please don’t cry. Please don’t cry.
City of warmth
I turned into a true-blue introvert. But it wasn’t as bad because I was too preoccupied with the city of Hanoi. The cold weather was a good thing as it reminded me that I was in someplace else, hundreds of miles away from home. It made me feel grateful every time, to have been blessed with such opportunity.
Despite the 10 degrees temperature, all I saw were human warmth. Hanoi was a city packed with people. On one corner there were streams of working adults rushing to get to someplace. On another corner there were little girls braiding each other’s hair , young men peeling sunflower seeds while drinking tea. The roads were spilling with motorbikes who would go out of their way to avoid pedestrians. I even bumped into one as I walked mindlessly, mesmerized by the city’s fullness of life.
It is worth nothing that Hanoi were full of pretty girls in their winter attire. One girl in particular left a mark in our hearts. She had long black wavy hair, sporting a red jacket. She was carrying her bike as she walked away, leaving us in awe. We might never know her name, but she would always be the girl with long black wavy hair, sporting a red jacket.
Food were in abundance too. Every few steps we would come upon a food stall, food stand, or simply a big pot surrounded by bowls and stools.
The shopkeepers were unforgiving, probably the worst in all Southeast Asia. Every time we tried to bargain, no matter how little, they would display such expression of shock like somebody has just died. Good thing none of us were much of a shopper. I got for myself a winter jacket. For tours and guides, we were lucky to have the ever-kiasu Mich to make sure we wouldn’t be conned too badly.
We took a 6-hour night train to get to Sapa village. A compartment could only hold four beds, so I moved to the next one, leaving the rest of the group. It wouldn’t make a difference if I was with them anyway. As I was shivering throughout the night, a local covered me up with a blanket that was stolen from my bed.
We arrived at the station and Mich got me a legging. Good God, who knew this piece of women wear was so comfortable. I met a cat too, at the station. The cat sat on my lap. He was my only friend throughout the entire Vietnam trip.
Sapa village was way colder than Hanoi, as low as one to two degrees. It was a long walk under the drizzling rain. We were accompanied by a 12-year old tour guide that didn’t talk much, and countless of other tribeswomen who offered their hands for help. The help wasn’t entirely out of free will as they asked us to buy souvenirs afterwards. But that was just the way business worked yo.
We stayed at a homestay and met a cool Dutch couple. We played Monopoly Deal. As usual, Mich was very good at making connection with people, well except the one who mattered. Just kidding. Or was I.
I put two layers of blanket and slept with my jacket on, and woke up with a sore back because they were too heavy.
We resumed our walk the morning after. Passed by mountains, pig farms, and paddy fields. Children ran without pants or shoes on. Before we boarded the train back to Hanoi, I gave my copy of The Alchemist to our 12-year old tour guide. The book inspired me to apply for my very first passport, and I hoped it would do her the same.
We were back in Hanoi, and we had KFC. KFC in Hanoi tasted like any other KFC. Then it was time for us to go home. I took a separate flight back, stopping at Saigon before arriving in Kuala Lumpur.
In retrospect, I was glad that the trip happened. Hanoi wasn’t exactly the first thing on everyone’s mind when they think of Southeast Asia, but it was my first destination. It would always hold a special place in my heart.
I was glad I took that trip with Mich. It added to our collection of shared experiences. But even without it, things would have stayed the same. We had always been close, and would continue to be. All these strong feelings I had in the past, would eventually simmer down in few years, if not months. These infatuation, these limerence. With anyone at all. I had always been too quick to give my heart away. But it would eventually fall out. In the end, nothing mattered. Nothing at all.
That moment when I was on the plane, touching clouds for the first time? I had it all to myself. It was my moment, and my moment alone.