In a struggle between curiosity and exhaustion, my desire to know where I am wins. I lift my heavy eyelids to see land that is saturated with the brilliant greens of flooded rice paddies and perfect rows of tea bushes that curve and climb up the mountainsides. Gray mist hugs the limestone karsts that jut out from both land and water, smoothing the transition between mountains and sky. Here in the countryside, Hanoi is far behind me, and I’m happier this way.
Back in Hanoi, I’d woken up feeling like I had just gone to bed. Before dawn, seven of us piled into a van and began the journey to the border of Vietnam and Laos. I knew we’d have a full day of driving, just how long, I wasn’t sure. But never mind the time of day or the long road ahead, I was anxious to get out of the place that had begun to trample on my traveling spirit.
In the beginning, Vietnam had been pleasant and promising. When I arrived in southern part of the country, the warmth and hospitality I encountered was a welcome surprise. In the markets, people would call out to me just to ask me where I was from without a sales pitch afterward. Walking around town, I’d feel a hand on my arm and think a friend was trying to get my attention, then I’d turn around and see an elderly local woman rubbing my arm and smiling at me. Everyone seemed to want to chat or be helpful in some way.
As I traveled north, the hospitality faded. Locals would walk by, point at me, and then burst into laughter. They held none of the friendliness of the southern countryside. Out of everyone in my group of various ages and sizes, this behavior was reserved for me, the sole person of African descent. It happened in Nha Trang, Hue, and Hanoi — not in the rural outskirts, but right in the heart of these more developed and educated cities that have heavy foreign tourist traffic.
On my last day in Hanoi, I wandered around the Museum of Ethnology, marveling at the different homes and lifestyles of the various ethnic groups in Vietnam. A group of school children took notice of me and decided to play a game revolving around me. They’d run up to see who could get closest to me, but before they’d get too close, they’d run away screaming. Adult chaperones were with them, watching the kids act as if I was a fearsome monster, but they didn’t say anything to them.
The museum was awash with foreigners, but again, I was the only one attracting this kind of attention. The general honesty of kids and what had likely influenced their actions disheartened me. I could only imagine what kind of media or discussions the kids had been exposed to that would lead them to act like I was a sub-human presence to be scared of and mocked so openly, simply because of my appearance.
As Vietnam had become more challenging, I would remind myself daily of how wonderful it was to be on this adventure and indeed, it was. But in Hanoi, I could no longer pretend that the way people reacted to me didn’t bother me. I recognized my privilege in being able to travel there and that I had made the decision to go there. But despite any of that, it was not okay to be singled out the way I was.
As a black traveler, you don’t always have the prior experience of someone who looks like you to draw from and on the road, you rarely find people who can completely understand your experience. Quite often, “Maybe it’s just a cultural thing!” or “They’re just not used to you and it doesn’t mean anything!” are the upbeat assessments you hear from fellow travelers who see how everyone reacts to you, but don’t have to deal with it themselves. Culture or not, it’s a learned habit in which it’s okay to overtly single someone out simply because they are who they are and that’s different from you. Most of the world will react when they see someone who looks unfamiliar to them, but not every place in the world thinks its okay to turn that into a one-way joke and chooses who the joke is on according to race.
Never before had I been so eager to leave a place. The country had gotten tiring and its physical beauty wasn’t enough anymore after the welcoming introduction in the South had faded.
Here in the Vietnamese countryside, my negative feelings are beginning to dissipate in the fog. I feel my tension easing as we move toward a new place. But we still have a bit of hectic Hanoi with us — our two drivers. The one who speaks English comes across as something of a Lothario. He seems well-versed in telling people what they want to hear. We instinctively don’t trust him.
As we begin to wake up, we all find that we can use some food, coffee, and a bathroom break. Our smooth-talking driver promises us that we will stop in one hour to get coffee.
For miles, all we see are rice paddies. There are a few workers wearing wide cone-shaped hats, hunched over and picking rice in the knee deep water of the fields. Every so often we see a water buffalo plowing the fields. In the seemingly endless countryside, we lose track of time.
As we notice that much more than an hour has passed, we remind the drivers that it’s beyond time to stop. They seem frustrated that we remembered.
We find a restaurant, and no one reacts to me as we walk up. The people we encounter here are not friendly, but I much prefer a chilly nonchalance to the Hanoi experience.
We sit down at long plastic tables on flimsy plastic chairs in the open air makeshift cafe. Our drivers ensure us that we will be stopping for a fantastic lunch soon if we just hold out for it. All we have eaten that day are some airy pastries from the hotel and we are wary of our drivers. But this restaurant doesn’t look like it has much food anyway, so we just order coffee. The only kind they have is slow drip and the water is lukewarm. We relax and watch the weak brew slowly fill up our clear mugs. Our drivers watch us with impatience.
I could stay here for another hour or two in this pastoral calm, but our drivers are ready to go. Along the drive, they stop briefly from time to time to switch places. We have a bathroom break in which they park on the side of a road where there are no buildings in sight. When I ask where to use the bathroom, they point towards the cliff. After few weeks in Southeast Asia, I know this is actually a better option than a public squat toilet so it isn’t a problem.
We walk down the hill to some small bushes where we think we’ll have a little privacy. We are secluded from each other, but when we look across the fields, we see a group of little kids watching us, clearly entertained by a group of foreigners making a toilet out of a hill.
Back in the van, the drivers drive right past Vinh, the town where we are supposed to stop for our fantastic lunch. Now they tell us we will find an amazing lunch at the border. It has become clear that their biggest concern is getting us to the border quickly so they can get back to Hanoi, and they will continue to say anything to appease us.
The Shady Border
We arrive at the border in the middle of the afternoon. The shadiness in the atmosphere is palpable. The only other people are an abundance of men in military uniforms. There is also a monkey in the corner.
At the border restaurant, we sit at a table next to some military men while our driver finds out what’s available to eat. We observe the intriguing meals the military men are enjoying and it actually looks promising. Then our driver returns to let us know our options: Beef noodle soup. Nothing else.
After the number of lies he’s told us throughout the day, we are suspicious of him. I don’t bother asking him why that’s the only dish available to us, but I am curious to know if it will actually be beef in the soup. He responds emphatically, “It’s beef! Not chicken, not pork, not dog. Beef!”
Soon, a waitress comes by with the saddest bowls of lukewarm, watered down ramen soup with bits of meat that sure don’t look like beef. I attempt to avoid the mystery meat and try the noodles. It’s as awful as it looks. We come across a small convenience store after lunch and we stock up on little packets of peanuts to try to appease our stomachs.
In the building where we go to get stamped out of Vietnam, the floor is inexplicably wet and the dubious ambiance is amplified. We are approached by a border official who wants something from us. We can’t understand what he wants, so he starts to draw it. Guessing games at the border!
I figure out that he wants — an American two dollar bill. In makeshift traveler’s sign language, I explain that I don’t have a two dollar bill, but I am happy to give him a dollar or two or the Vietnamese dong equivalent.
After two border crossings in Southeast Asia, I’d witnessed some mild corruption and extremely invasive bag searches. I was keen on bypassing any potential issues or delays. As a traveler, it’s amazing how quickly you can acquiesce to a questionable system in order to avoid the tricky combination of language barriers and trouble with a person who has a small amount of power. Sometimes you preemptively do what you can just to move on with your day.
We fill in the rest of the group on the border agent’s request and everyone hands over the equivalent of one to two US dollars. I don’t know what would happen if we didn’t give him money, but I’m not interested in finding out. He looks happy and I’m happy to not have trouble at the border. Getting stamped out is a breeze and we walk across no man’s land to Laos. The shadiness carries over to other side. Once again, the border official wants a dollar “convenience fee” and we oblige. And then we are officially in Laos.
As we head up a hill to meet our new driver, I notice an awful smell. Then I hear whimpering. I eventually see the source, a large truck full of dogs. We all look at each other, shocked, knowing that these dogs will end up as food. We’ve grown up in places where dogs are pets and eating them is wrong. Hearing chickens squawking is normal but the unaddressed whimpering of dogs is jarring because we think of them as companions to humans, not food.
It is terrible to see the dogs in these small cages and the stench is troubling. But as someone who does eat meat, I know I cannot judge what other people determine to be edible.
As my head is spinning with thoughts about the ways in which where you live dictates morality, the men in the dog truck grin and a wave to me as I walk by. There is no moral dilemma for them; it’s just business as usual.
Into the Laotian Sun
Our new driver is lovely. He smiles warmly as we approach the bus. We are relieved as we finally exit the border area and the sun suddenly shines upon us. It’s the first time we’ve seen it in days.
We twist and turn on a mountain road and we see no other cars or people. These wild mountains with tropical flowers blooming from the trees feel like a gorgeous secret.
We pass through villages that seem lively and mellow at the same time. Everyone is outdoors socializing or playing soccer and groups of children hang out, still wearing their school uniforms. A sense of community emanates from these villages.
Our driver is keen on taking us places just for the sake of sightseeing. He stops so we can walk along a bridge over a wide river. On the other side of the bridge is a small village and I see the look of shock in people’s eyes as they see me. But then they quickly return to their activities, and I am relieved. We next go to the Phou Hin Boun limestone forest where we watch the sun set behind rows of jagged peaks before continuing on the road. Our driver is proud of his country’s natural offerings and we are happy to have him share these places with us.
At dusk, we can see that the big satellite dishes we’d noticed outside people’s huts are being put to use. People leave their front doors wide open, and inside their dwellings, we can see large families sitting on the floor crowded around one TV. Electricity is strung from hut to hut and a fluorescent light hangs in front of each home.
After 15 hours on the road, we finally arrive at our destination and it’s as dark as when we left. We pull into a parking lot and the neon sign reads “Paksan Ho” because the “tel” has run out of juice. We settle into our rooms and go to the hotel restaurant to at last have a real meal.
The restaurant is outside on the bank of the Nam Xan River. The waitress gives us just one menu because that’s all they have. I order tom yum soup with chicken. I am served tom yuck with chicken bones. Disgusting soup-2, me-0. But somehow this incredible calm and contentedness has settled in my soul since we arrived in Laos. If I can’t enjoy the food, I can enjoy this wonderful night and the company and the tranquility until the storm rolls in.
We head up to our rooms when it starts to pour. As I get ready for bed, I think about the highs and lows of my experiences in Southeast Asia. In addition to an overstuffed backpack, I feel like I’ve been carrying the weight of representing an entire race. It’s not a completely new feeling to me, but I’d never experienced that feeling so intensely before I arrived in Southeast Asia. I haven’t purposely signed up to be a pioneer, but indirectly, I have.
I’m not sure what the rest Laos will bring, but I get a sense that the hardest part of my trip is behind me. I turn off the light and pause for a moment at the window to watch the thunderstorm raging on outside. Then I climb into bed and drift peacefully to sleep.