Little did I know when I was in college that I would develop an insatiable taste for travel, a sense of wanderlust. It was 2010, I had just transferred to San Diego State University and I decided on a whim that I wanted to study abroad to Vietnam, because I didn’t want to be like the other kids who go somewhere “mainstream” like Europe. So I attended my required seminars, got my shots and packed way too much. Having only ever been to Mexico and Canada – border cities at that – I really had no idea what to expect in Southeast Asia.
My Mom drove me and one of the other girls going to Vietnam, April, to LAX airport. We arrived two hours before the check-in desk opened and made small talk with the people around us. April, it turned out, had gone on a service-learning trip to India the year before and had a much better idea of what she was getting herself into in Asia.
Fast forward 24 hours, we arrived to Hanoi airport and cleared customs. We met up with our hosts from Vietnam National University: Hanoi. Bao and Oanh. Little did I know at that point, Oanh would become a good friend to this day. This was the first year that SDSU and VNU were doing their joint study abroad program, so in one sense we were guinea pigs and in another sense, we were cultural ambassadors between Southern California and Vietnam.
I remember vividly the look of horror on our welcoming committee’s faces when they saw how much luggage we all brought. They had hired only one van to transport twelve of us to the university and ended up having to call another van just to carry all of our luggage. My first impression of Vietnam was the heat and humidity. It was early June and was like trying to breathe under a blanket. Stiflingly hot – I wasn’t sure how I was going to survive 6 weeks. My next impression was the absolute insanity that is their driving. I was convinced that we were going to die getting to the University. But it all worked out okay.
Being in Vietnam was very isolating. It gave me a lot of time to think. Maybe too much time. Not only were we on opposite time zones with the US, but because Vietnam is communist there is some degree of censorship of media and websites from outside of the country, adding to my sense of isolation from the rest of the world. It was a lonely feeling to be in a country where I had no one other than my group of students, didn’t speak the language and couldn’t ever quite cool off from the heat.
I never quite fit in with the group, was never quite happy, felt mildly sick from the heat and the malaria medicine I was taking and ultimately ended up leaving early to return home. I only made it 12 days on a trip that was supposed to be 6 weeks with an additional month of solo traveling afterward. I used the fact that my Dad had a diagnosis of potential prostate cancer as my excuse to return home, which was true, but the real reason was that I was so depressed and isolated.
When I got home, I wanted to kiss the ground in LAX. My Mom was not at all happy to see me because of the ridiculous amount of money she had spent on the trip, so we walked to the car in silence. I was determined that I never wanted to leave the US again.
And yet I did. Less than a year later, my cousin Danny contacted me to invite me on a trip to Ireland with him. I wasn’t sure. But he talked me into it. Ireland was cold, they speak English and their culture is super similar to ours, so I felt better about the decision. And what a great decision it was.
Lesson 1: Never say never. Have an open mind and rather than regretting past decisions, move forward and learn from them.
Ireland was my first experience traveling abroad as a tourist – rather than a student – and staying in hostels. It was an amazing experience. I thoroughly enjoyed trying new foods, meeting new people and learning how to see the world through a different lens. It lit a fire in me that has been raging ever since. It showed me that although Vietnam was culture shock, it was a valuable experience that taught me a lot about myself and travel. And prepared me for future travel to developing countries in Asia and Latin America.
Lesson 2: When going to Ireland in the winter, take more than a hoodie and jeans to stay warm.
Since that Ireland trip, I have traveled 3-4 months per year: sometimes solo, a few times with a tour, twice with friends, often with my Mom and always with an open mind. I have learned that there are a lot of different ways of doing things or looking at things that are different than the way we do it here in the United States. And that is okay. People in other countries like doing things the way they do. It doesn’t make them wrong or us right.
Lesson 3: Solo traveling is a great experience and you learn a lot about yourself, but traveling is more fun when you have someone to share it with.
Lesson 4: When you don’t have someone to travel with, a great option is taking an organized trip. Companies like GAdventures and Contiki have low budget trips aimed at young people while Gate1 and Trafalgar have more comfortable tours aimed at people with more money to spend.
The most eye-opening trip I took was to China with a GAdventures tour in 2015. China is our biggest rival, largest trading partner and political arch nemesis. It is somewhere that has fascinated me since I was a child. Vietnam prepared me for China, gave me an idea of what to expect and helped me keep an open mind, taking any problems in stride rather than getting upset. Overall I wasn’t a huge fan of China and probably wouldn’t go back – but it was still a fascinating and eye opening experience to travel around a country that is so different from the United States for a month.
Lesson 5: People in other countries do things their way. Not the same way we do it in America. Most of the time that is a good thing.
In August of this year, I took a cruise with my Mom to Aruba, Bonaire, Dominican Republic and Turks & Caicos which helped me hit my milestone of 30 countries before the age of 30. My 30th country was Aruba, a country off the coast of Venezuela in South America. Although Aruba itself wasn’t very interesting, it was exciting to hit my goal nonetheless.
Lesson 6: Taking a cruise is a great way to see countries you wouldn’t want to necessarily see on their own. On the average 7 day cruise you see 2-4 countries.
As 2016 comes to a close, I am getting ready to embark on a 6-week Southeast Asian backpacking trip with my friend Grace. We have been planning the trip for a year and are doing it entirely ourselves without a structured tour. We are going to Thailand, Cambodia, Bali, Singapore, Philippines and Hong Kong. It will put me to 35 countries, allowing me to check off another item from my bucketlist.
As I look forward, I am excited about all the countries I have yet to see. I approach the world with an open mind and an open heart.