I do not recognize myself as a mountaineer or travel expert. For some reason, the Vietnamese media and the people who are following me on Facebook label me that way. My inbox is always full of messages asking me how to apply for a visa, how to travel here and there as if I know everything. Many times, my foreign friends, when seeing me appear in bunches of newspapers, magazines & TV channels, queried me on how to become well-known. I said, perhaps you just need to have your limbs frozen off while getting stuck on a ledge on some mountain. Putting it simply, you have to be almost dead.
The day I got back from the Nepal avalanche in 2014, many correspondents approached to interview me and laud me on how brave I was. I told them over and over again that, no, I was not brave, the reason I climbed to the top of Annapurna mountain was that I wanted to run a trekking firm. The media ignored that fact. A woman who climbed to the top of a mountain for the purpose of making money was not inspiring enough. I told them that if they praised me, please mention that I had a mother who was at home and suffered from domestic violence. Please also tell the readers that many women in Vietnam were in the same situation. They were braver than me, I was not, absolutely not, and that was why I ran away. The reporters, however, seemed not to listen to me. Everything I saw from bunches of articles was that “she climbed to the top of the mountain, she climbed to the top of the mountain.” I felt completely lost …
The day Dae Choi took me to Redondo Beach in San Diego to bike, we sat together for a while. Choi told me that he once did a bicycle trip through Southeast Asia and was surprised that people in Vietnam knew nothing more than football when talking about sports. That is true. Yet there is a kind of sport that Vietnamese people know very well: gambling. Kids in Vietnam love gambling, young people love gambling, old people love it too, even when they emigrated from Vietnam. That is why so many Vietnamese people love gambling in America.
Recently, I stopped my trip in Guadalajara to volunteer at a hostel named The Roof Backpackers and prepare for my English exams. Two years ago, in the first trip of my life after quitting my job to travel, the first country where I stopped was India. People asked me why India. I said that I wanted to learn English. They all laughed (of course, how not to laugh when hearing one chose to study English in a country where people have a very bad accent?). “It was cheap,” I said in tears. Who does not want to travel to the U.S. or UK to learn English? However, I had no choice. If you are wondering why I did not return to the U.S. to prepare for my exams, my answer is, “because Mexico is cheap.”
The Roof Backpackers hostel is boring. Its guests are weird. Marcus has stayed here for 6 months doing nothing except watching movies every day, sometimes talking and laughing alone. Daniel and Edgar – two Americans camped on the roof for 3 months, exchanged sexual favors with Zahira – a Mexican student who is volunteering with me. One day it rained heavily and I could not sleep.
Hugo Alejandro booked a bed for a month but I always found him asleep in the bathroom or on the couch every morning when I went to prepare for breakfast. An English girl called Jenny, who has suffered from panic attacks and self-abusive behavior, exchanged sexual favors with the owner – Galo. Galo likes a Japanese girl called Nat. Nat had sex with a teenage Italian in my dorm. People from different countries all stop here for only one reason: Tequila (Guadalajara is the hometown of Tequila).
It is ridiculous that a traveler like me, who is supposed to be gregarious, found only one friend to talk with and that friend is living thousands of miles away. Zuf (a little brother who hosted me when I was in Wisconsin) once asked me what is the hardest thing when travelling. Well, it is not the matter of travelling with a limited budgets. It is not the matter of travelling alone. It is about how to get along and find things in common with people around you, which significantly determines whether you enjoy your trip. Unfortunately, a woman like me who is travelling to learn and see the world found nothing in common with the people in this hostel. They travel to relax and do crazy things because they are young.. Maybe I am the craziest one among them. I am the only one who is different.
I sometimes heard another Linh inside my head telling me, “hey Linh! wake up and go.” Yes, I really wanted to go, fall into the stream of life like the others. However, the next day when I woke up, everything was the same shit, the owner was still there with dental braces in his mouth, Jenny’s arms and legs were still full of cuts, Edgar was still in Zahira’s bed. Life is never as easy as the words “just go.”
I was almost quiet until recently when I met Dung. He is a Vietnamese-American, speaks fluent English, Vietnamese, Spanish and Chinese. He came here to study at a medical school nearby. However, he has to return home soon because he got an invitation for an interview from a medical school in the U.S., which is definitely better than the one in Mexico.
Dung suggested we talk in Vietnamese and he was kind of disappointed when I refused. In fact, I really wanted to speak in my mother tongue, the language that I grew up with, the language that I love. However, the question is, why did I fly thousands of miles to come and volunteer here and talk in the language that I can speak at home?
That day, Dung & I spent time on the rooftop sharing stories with each other. The memories of 7 months of travelling around America flew back to me. I asked myself what happened to the old woman called “Mrs. Gai”, who I met when following Mrs. Tuong in a program of elderly care when I was in Texas. Mrs. Gai was really happy when she met me – a person who she could talk with in her mother language. During 20 years of living in the States, Mrs. Gai collected around $30,000. She sent back $15,000 to her relatives, asked them to buy land and build a gorgeous grave for her. The rest of the money, she planned to give to her children to transfer her body to Vietnam after her death.
Another elderly couple, who owned a big house in Allen, Texas. The wife was 85, struggling with the last difficult days of her life. She could not walk after an accident and the sores on her ass gradually ulcerated due to her age and long hours in bed. The husband seemed strong, however, he was losing his mind. Their children had to go to work every day so they hired an illegal worker to take care of the old couple. The caretaker left after 10 days. The daughter-in-law decided to leave the couple inside and lock the door when they went to work. She also bought food, put it into the fridge and told her father-in-law to help feed her mother-in-law. The old man always sat next to his wife’s bed, caring for her. However, because of his Alzheimer’s he gave his wife tea instead of food. The wife ingested everything her husband gave her as a way to please him. The house stunk as a result of her peeing due to excessive drinking.
Another, a 60-year-old man called Ba, whom I met at a nail salon in Chicago, has lived in the States for just a year. His daughter, called N., came to America to study and decided to have a fraudulent marriage with a Vietnamese American called S. to get a Green card. S. was willing to help her for free instead of asking for $30,000 as others charge. Touched by S.’s kindness, N. fell in love with S.. The couple sponsored their parents to come to the U.S. after 7 years of hard work hard as manicurists. Mr.Ba and his wife sold everything to go for the reunion with their daughter. However, they were quickly disappointed when they realized that there was no friend, no relative, no “café sữa đá” in the U.S. They decided to go to work to fill their time and help their daughter pay for housing. And that was how the old man appeared in the nail salon, where he had to wash customers’ feet who were happy to spend $22 at a nail salon, thrust their stinking feet and order the pedicurists, “hey, wash my feet, cut my nails!!!”
I also asked myself what happened to T.H, a Vietnamese student in Chicago. To afford her tuition, she needed to work 5 days per week. The other days were time for school. As a result, she could not speak English after 2 years in the States. I actually knew her through Renas, a friend of mine who worked as an administrator in an international college in Chicago. The day I had a coffee with Renas to say goodbye to Chicago, he told me that he was really upset that many Vietnamese students at his school didn’t know where downtown was.
A friend called Nhany married a man who has an American father and a Vietnamese mother for an American dream. She was shocked when she realized that her husband had nothing. She worked hard, over 12 hours per day and 7 days per week to make as much money as she could. Instead of appreciating her efforts, the husband got mad when he saw Nhany spending time learning English with me. He also did not allow her to get a driver’s license. The fear of abandonment, which might happen if his young wife knew everything, was the reason for his actions. That is a typical characteristic of most Vietnamese men.
I burst into tears after seeing the truth about Vietnamese people’s lives in the U.S. I was also shocked when a Vietnamese radio channel invited me to their show but did not allow me to say I am from Ho Chi Minh city. Instead, they asked me to say I am from Sai Gon – the old name of Ho Chi Minh city. I sometimes questioned why the hatred has been around for so long. Have they never felt tired or heavy from carrying it? The Vietnamese people who are in the U.S. and the ones who are in Vietnam seem to eat the same foods, talk the same language, but have different flags and never want to shake hands or live in peace. Never…
I also thought about Mrs. Ly, the one I consider as my mother. She loved me, protected me, cared for me even more than her children. She had a dream to win lotteries to overthrow the Vietnamese government to help Vietnamese people. It told her that if she wanted to help, she just needed to give people an education, give them love, and embrace them with her kindness. She kept silent as a way to get me to go to church. No, I cannot be better by going to church. I am just better by being the church.
A year flew by quickly. Recently, a reporter in Vietnam stole an article of mine and embellished the details to induce readers to attack me. I decided to sue the publication despite attempts by many friends to dissuade me. If I ignored what the publication did to me, I would not be qualified to call people to fight for change in the country.
My lawyer and I finally won. The publication had to publish a public letter apologizing to me. However, I also realized that I could not convince the conservative people in my country who criticized me and were ashamed of me because I went to travel with limited money. Roger told me not to worry, that what I am doing is the same as his generation 30 years ago, to build a Canada like today.
Yes, I never worry about what I am doing. I realized that people only know who they are by making a comparison with others. When I was a kid I lived in poverty but I did not know that until I got a chance to move to the biggest city in Vietnam and worked and lived with rich people. I believe my mother would fight for her freedom if she got a chance to see how Western women live. Therefore, I support young people who want to see the world through their own eyes to know who they are, to find out where they truly belong. Sadly, the Vietnamese people who sacrificed themselves fighting anyone who invaded the country, now admonish young people who want to travel to see the world. I wonder what kind of country my country would be.
Dung told me that if he were me he would study abroad, make as much money as he could and enjoy life. Yes, normally people do that and I seem to have enough ability to do that. But…“you know what, when I was a kid, I often played the game called “Rescue the world” with my friends after watching the movie “Journey to the West.” In that game, I played the role of the “Goddess of Mercy.”
Dung got the picture. We both laughed. The sun was shining that day and the last lights through my eyes shed a few tears.
Dung now is gone. He came to give back the key and disappeared quickly when I was busy at making a check-out for two Danish guys. He called it is “French exit” aka “Irish goodbye” or “ghosting”. He moved to another hostel, which he hoped that it would be nicer than my hostel.
The people in my hostel are enjoying celebrating a new year. I am now on my own bed, writing about a new year.
Welcome 2017, for worse or better!!!