On the outskirts of District 1 in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, tucked away in the coiling alleyways known locally as hems, there is a bedroom with walls painted a delicate shade of yellow, not unlike freshly churned butter. In it a massive double bed dominates most of the room, but there is enough space for a wardrobe, a tiny fridge, a pock-marked wooden desk, and a television with exactly four English channels and approximately 40 other channels that seem to feature nothing but schmaltzy, schmoopy Viet-pop videos. Despite what seems to us an abundance of furniture, there is still just enough floor space that I can, muscles aching and straining, make it through a yoga routine, though at times it is a stretch… then again, I suppose that’s the point of yoga (see what I did there?). As I heave myself into a forward warrior pose, my knees creak ominously and I groan in pain, the smooth tile of the floor cool but unyielding against my joints. When I have finished my workout, Tony looks up from his laptop and says he has found the address of a sporting goods store nearby—since I seem to be making a habit of starting my days with yoga (or my closest approximation of it), later today we will go and see if we can find me a mat to make the process less (unnecessarily) painful. Maybe while we are out, we’ll pick up some real bath towels, too. Fluffy ones that dry our bodies in seconds but will take hours themselves to dry and take up a prodigal amount of room in our packs.
As perpetual travelers who are constantly pulling up stakes and heading from one city to the next, we’re always looking for things we can toss to lighten our load, not ways we can add to it, so this somewhat trivial shopping outing is really anything but. We don’t buy things unless they’re absolutely necessary, are easily portable, and will get a lot of use. Whatever preconceived notions you might have of long-term travel, know this: for us, a yoga mat and two “normal” (read: not quick drying) towels count as a luxury. Oh how these months of travel have changed us.
So why, as January and a new year dawns, have we experienced this change of heart? Why are we throwing caution to the wind and picking up frivolous accouterments? And why have we hung up our clothes and, emptied of their contents, stuffed the husks of our packs into the bottom shelf of the wardrobe like two bungling hit men trying to hide a body?
Because for the next three months, this humble room will be our home.
I know, I know. For nearly 1.5 years Tony and I have been rambling about Asia eschewing the need, or even the desire, for something even slightly resembling a permanent base. We’ve become commitment-phobes to everything and everyone but each other, and the thought of staying put in one place long enough to have something mailed to us always had us hastily getting the hell out of dodge.
But it seems the eventual fate of long-term travelers and rolling stones alike that at some point, you just have to slow down, properly unpack, and gather some moss. It turns out that despite all our deking and darting about, even Tony & I can’t outrun this destiny. Exhaustion has nipped at our heels since June; it’s taken us about six months to accept that its mantle has settled upon our shoulders and resists all efforts at being shrugged aside. And although many travelers relay battling feelings of homesickness early on in their journeys, it’s only in the past few months that we’ve found ourselves truly wistful for the comforts of home. When we found ourselves repeatedly pining for things from the life we left behind like late night video game and movie marathons come the weekend, having time to read books, going for walks with no agenda, having a roster of tried, tested and true restaurants where the owners know us (and our orders) on sight, or even the long-fought nemesis of adventurous spirits—a day-to-day routine—we knew that this, in combination with increased mental and physical sluggishness, was a sign that we needed to make some changes to our lifestyle once more.
Now, before you start panicking that we’re unpacking our bags for good or getting ready to turn in our passports, let me assure that this is absolutely not the case. We still want a life of travel—it’s pretty much woven into our DNA at this point—we’re just going to approach it differently for a while.
If you’ll permit me a moment to navel gaze, the initial goal for our trip was to see a bit of the world and have a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. We really thought we would be satisfied by racing through countries at the speed of light, checking out their big ticket attractions, doing the touristy stuff that people do on holidays, and just barely scratch the surface of a place before crossing it off our list and moving on to the next one. Skipping from one country to the next like a stone across a pond, gathering a handful of postcard memories would be enough. It was meant to be a lark, hopefully an enriching one, but primarily, this endeavor was focused on us seeing some cool things, eating some great food, and having fun.
In that respect, we have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. Because it has been fun, immensely and incredibly so. And for the past year having fun has been reason enough to sustain the trip.
Just so I’m clear, traveling hasn’t stopped being fun for us, nor have I suddenly taken up arms against the notion of doing things just because you enjoy them. It’s just that in the midst of it all, we’ve both fallen helplessly in love with Asia, and this passion we feel for it has changed our priorities ever so slightly. We’re no longer interested in a casual dalliance or fleeting flirtation as we hopscotch our way across the globe—we want to delve deeper into the places we visit, uncovering their secrets and stories so we can share them with you. When we find ourselves tapping into the pulse of a country, that is when we now get the greatest thrill. But in order to gain access to the heart of a place and its people, we know we need to give ourselves time to patiently observe and be absorbed into the daily milieu. We want to truly revel in what it means to be in this slice of the world, not as tourists, but as people opening their minds to a life lived slowly and deeply.
More than that, we also want to push the margins in terms of what we do here on the site; we want to expand the boundaries of what we’re capable of when it comes to telling deep, meaningful stories and taking you on photographic journeys. We want to hone our skills, nurture our passions… we want to burst into bloom. But first we need to allow ourselves to take root.
Staying put also serves another purpose for us: when we set out, we honestly believed this was our one chance to live a big life rather than a small one, that the pursuit of this travel dream would be finite in scope, miles and length. Now we know that this need not be the case, nor do we want it to be. In the most fundamental of ways, traveling has given us back our lives, and as far as we can see the two are now inextricably linked. We can’t imagine going back to the way things once were, but if we want to stay out here in the world, we know we need to start developing tangible ways to actually do so. Money makes the world go round and it will also keep us going around the world, so we are hoping that by slowing things down, we can lay the foundation for streams of income that will help keep us traveling indefinitely. Not only does slowing down our travels a snail’s pace lessen the strain on our savings, but it also gives us the time to channel our inner ants so that we can live a grasshopper’s life. To that end, we will spend the next three months focusing on building our graphic and web design business (if you’ve been toying with freshening up your own site’s look this year, want a new logo, or have any other design needs, check out our Design page to see what we can do for you!) and I will be trying to secure some writing gigs that will pay for the copious bowls of soup I’ll be gorging on here in Vietnam.
There will still be traveling, or perhaps more accurately what I mean is exploration, while we’re here in Saigon. It’s a massive, sprawling city in a state of pupation much like ourselves, with plenty for us to dive into and discover. We’ve already managed to break free of Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacker’s ghetto and the only part of the city we really saw last time, so that seems promising. We’re also within easy reach of the Mekong and sundry beaches; with a scooter at our disposal, we plan to take plenty of weekend jaunts to keep things interesting.
As we stand on the threshold of bona fide self-employment, I truthfully have no idea how things will work out or what the next three months have in store for us in that regard. I suspect there will be a lot of hard work along with some tears, frustration and disappointment, and there is always the chance that three months from now we’ll have nothing to show for this investment of time and ourselves that we are making. It is a gamble that may not pay off. We might discover that we cannot make this work. We might fail. But the fact that we are so in love with the life that we have right now means we have to try this so that we can hold on to it. The fear of failure is nothing compared to the possibility of losing what we have traveled so far (both metaphorically and literally) to find. Finding something that means more to me than fear is how I know it is worth putting this new dream on the line and furiously going after it with both hands once more, just as we did back when we first concocted the idea of traveling around the world for one year.
From day one we have always viewed this trip as a journey, meaning nothing about it—not us, not our location, not even the adventure itself—would stay fixed or unchanging. It seems fitting and feels right that after all the adventures we’ve had in 2013, we are kicking off 2014 by navigating a new one. In the spirit of a fresh start, we’re also going to shake things up narratively speaking here at 20YH: although I wrote just a few months ago about being ok with how far behind our site is, and I still stand by that, it does sometimes bother me that our tardiness has choked off some of my more “of the moment” reflections and posts I might wish to write. While we’re here in Vietnam, I’m going to try punctuating our back catalog of stories from the past 12 months with more timely reflections of this phase of our trip. I’m hoping this experiment will encourage me to write more frequently and more freely. Lately writing has felt a bit like a chore and I worry blogging has become too self-serious for my own good, so I’m going to try a new approach where I just write what I want. I’ve never tried this before because I was worried things might feel muddled or schizophrenic, but I suppose there’s only one real way to know for sure.
And so I sit here, in a room with daffodil walls dappled with sunlight, a room of my own—at least for three months—and prepare to set out once more unto the breach. Dear friends, won’t you join me?