My name is Karen Cygnarowicz. I am writing you from a cozy home in a little town in northern New Hampshire, U.S.A. I am 26, and an American poet and artist currently working as a freelance editor and writer while studying my MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. My partner Adam Wilson and I were on the road for the last half of 2014. We began by traveling the States before landing in South East Asia. For this trip abroad, our time included Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and then again in Thailand before making our way back home to New England for Christmas.
What sparked your interest to motorcycle across Vietnam? How did you plan for your cross-country adventure?
We didn’t plan our trip beyond agreeing to go and booking our tickets. Adam and I had met in February of the same year we traveled together, and the idea appeared in letters we were writing each other while he worked in Alaska and I lived in Vermont. We are both adventurous nature and agreed that life is too short, so we decided to travel. After months of writing, we met again in June with our bags packed, then left.
While on the road, we discovered a network of people off the page. Our shared lists of places-to-go transformed while talking with other travelers who have been there before. Although word of mouth is helpful, we learned to trust ourselves by navigating our own route. Adam had heard of the idea to buy a motorcycle in Vietnam and considered the possibility with his license back home. After a couple months traveling by foot and bus in Thailand and Cambodia, we both wanted to be able to make our own path.
Did you work with a tour company or go the DIY route? What route did you take? How did you prepare for the trip? (Where did you purchase your motorcycle, how did you make the choice, what obstacles did you have to overcome to get a license, etc.)
It appears most backpackers begin in the southern city of Ho Chi Minh (HCMC), or in the northern city, Hanoi, and work their way towards the other. There are more options for buying and selling your motorcycle in those cities because it is the typical backpacker route. However we were coming from Cambodia and cut the distance in half by buying the motorcycle in Hoi An (north of HCMC), and then traveled towards Hanoi. While in the north, we intended to explore the surrounding sites. There is a loop outwards from the busy city of Hanoi that includes day treks with the women of the Sapa villages, spending the night with families in their stilted homes of Mai Chau, and other places providing ways to get outside. It was important for us to talk with the people of Vietnam, and met many willing to talk in English in these travel guidebook destinations.
There are tour guides available for those who have not had experience on a motorcycle, but it is not uncommon for even the wary traveler to bike the way we had for the entire month of a Vietnam visa. There is an international license – I think we read something like that along the way – but by the time we were in Vietnam, Adam and I were mindfully active in not following the travel guidebooks verbatim. We used the experience of independently traveling by motorcycle as the framework for doing whatever we wanted.
We ended up selling the bike the day before our visas expired, cheaply, in a rush. It was in a small but transient city, Dien Bien Phu, but we had to drive around for what seemed like hours to find a willing taker. The original intention was to be able to cross into Laos with the bike so we could continue on our path back to northern Thailand. However, at the border of Vietnam and Laos we were told through a Google translation app that we could only cross by foot or bus. This obstacle was forewarned on some travelers’ forum online, but in our nature we insisted to try it for ourselves. After an hour-long game of charades, the forgiving old man who bought the bike assisted us in our defeat. The walk back to our guesthouse that afternoon, and to the bus station at 4 o’clock in the morning the following day were as quiet as the rice fields we passed through that month in Vietnam.
In what ways would you say traveling with a significant other differs from traveling with friends or by yourself?
In many ways, traveling with a significant other is similar to traveling with friends. As like any friendship, communication is essential in a relationship, too, and especially a relationship tested through the trials of travel.
In Vietnam, we met a twenty-year-old female on a motorcycle who prefers to travel alone. She claimed she could make and change decisions for herself without any other influence, and she admitted being awarded great generosity by locals simply because she was a female traveling by herself. Although I have not spent as much time traveling alone as I have with another, I can concur the slight differences in the two experiences. In even a few days spent in a café here and there without my partner, it is true, you will gain attention in solo pursuit. An inspiring friend and fellow traveler once said, “the thing about traveling alone is that you never really are.” I borrow this brilliant piece of advice often as it shakes even the faintest moments of loneliness in life.
Now in answering to my deep gratitude for Adam in my life and on the motorcycle, I could not do this without him. And it is not just because I have never driven a motorcycle. I think of what explorer Christopher McCandless (of the stories in “Into The Wild” by Jon Krakauer) wrote of happiness, that it is “only real when shared.” And although we have met many people throughout our days, it has been truly special with another person who I trust, love, and can talk to honestly at the end of a long day.
What are some of the pros and cons of seeing the country in this way?
It depends on the attitude of the person as to what is uncomfortable. I can say what I tell anyone who asks about the trip that this is the only way to travel Vietnam. We witnessed tour busses by the masses with major route drop off points and “bathroom” breaks on the driver’s time. This herding-way of moving is something we had experienced in Thailand and Cambodia and Laos when we didn’t rent a scooter for the day. I mean you really lose your freedom when you cannot examine your zipper without asking.
We were always lost. Without a phone, GPS, or a good atlas, the navigation really strips you down to the essentials and layers on the dirt. I wrote a poem about the many days it rained; is that a pro or a con? I believe it is what you make it. As a couple, it brought us closer. I had not spent too much time on the back of a motorcycle, so I needed to learn to trust the experience and trust the driver. Those first few days tested our cohabitation in many human ways, but eventually I learned how to mellow out, listen to some music, and live in our environment.
What advice would you give those interested in following a similar path?
Have patience. Consider serendipity over choreography. Slow down. Laugh! And learn a few words in another language including what you like to eat, and what else you think you might need. Gesturing a spoon and bowl is easy, but will only get you soup. And “waterfall” and “toilet” are not as obvious to gesture, but rather make for a strange conversation with what feels like your self. Even with a partner, expect and accept a lot of time for self-reflection. Write.
What were some of your culinary experiences traveling across the country?
The food of Vietnam has been the most memorable of experiences of all countries we have visited. Imagine: small, red plastic chairs, road side coffee Karaoke cafes, barbequed insects, pho shop after pho shop – we ate as much rice and noodles as we could intake. In Hoi An, we spent three nights wandering the colorful lantern-lit market until we found what is there known as a “food court” – small booths of individual “restaurants” or one-cook-shows serving the same kind of eats. On the first night we walked down the line as each cook tried their English to offer their food. I noticed a man greatly gesturing our invitation, at the very end, with no one at his picnic table. Mr. Ba is his name, and his smiley wife cooks a decadent bowl of tofu pho for 32,000 Vietnamese Dong (or $1.50 U.S.). We ate there three nights in a row until we begun our journey on the bike. It was that good.
On the road, we had wide eyes for more pho, and signs in bulk were never in English. Some desperate days we leaned on a very small list of words to translate menus ultimately resulting in the only thing they had available. In some places, we sat down and plates were delivered after language barrier defeat. Fortunately there are two arguably important words that sound similar to what we know them as in English: coffee is cà phê, and beer is bia. Bringing us to one good night after a day trekking through the Dark Cave (a must!) in Phong Nha. Adam learned of a restaurant literally named “Pub With Cold Beer” (another must!) found down a long muddy road. While it was nearing night, our dim headlight leant us little reprieve from the dirt-bike venture back. The restaurant was empty; no one was home. So we had a decision to make – To go before it gets dark, or to wait. After a few minutes of enjoying the view, a puppy appeared sprinting towards us up the driveway, and I knew there was someone on their way home. Then a woman appeared with her two children after having picked them up from school. The one girl immediately asked us, “Cold Biaaaa?” and we asked for chicken, or “gà” off the menu, too. A few minutes later, the woman returned holding a live chicken upside down from its feet. She gestured to ask if this was what we wanted.
On another day we stopped, as we always did by mid-morning of a long day, at a café for some coffee. As soon as we sat down outside, a group of young men called us inside to share a day beer (a beer brewed that day, tastes near-like water). The six men were very curious about our age, where we were from, where we were going – we were often asked these three questions. In their offering of beer and time, the table went dry and Adam responded by insisting to buy the next round. As little as these street-side bars are it’s often as desolate, and it is not clear who might be the bartender. The gesture unfolded to Adam going behind the counter to find bottles for everyone, and in realization of what was happening, the group cheered and stood up and patted his back and said “thanks” and bowed and pushed in his chair when he sat back down at the table. Adam looked over at me, and said “happy,” smile-wide. It was an experience of true gratitude met by a moment of a universal connection.
Travel has a tendency to look very glamorous, though that is not always the case. What types of challenges have you had during your travels and how did you overcome them?
This is very true. In the conversations I have had with friends back home, it seems like there is this disconnect between reality and a dream that has been the most challenging for me emotionally. It is perceived that I am living in one consecutive good moment, and while I am grateful for the life I have created with my partner – in the good and bad – on the road, it is still life. There have been days Adam and I just look at each other with fatigue, frustration, or we are just plain hungry. Fortunately for us we recognize each other with these expressions and it goes back to what it feels like to travel with someone, rather than being alone. There are other moments too, as mentioned, that test the barriers of cultural differences and the limits of the self, and sometimes make you question the greater humanity.
As for being on the back of a motorcycle for mere hours to full daylight’s worth of time, we were not only hungry. We were dirty, lost, sunburnt, rained on, stared at, laughed at, ignored, yelled at, and often nearly run off the road. I will never forget the first day on the bike with four hours of constant downpour. We resulted to laughing hysterically while trucks passed by drenching us ever more. I had pruned fingers for days. By the third full day, I realized that there was no way out but through. This frequently called upon meditation got us through moments of literal mud and landslide. Adam and I promised each other we were not going to stop.
What’s next for you?
Adam said something in Vietnam that had us thinking throughout the rest of our time abroad, and perhaps has extended its hand in our transition back home. He said, “We are seeing this country in a way that the people of Vietnam may never get the opportunity.” This might be true about many citizens of their own, and with this life, we intend to exercise the ability to go, to travel. Again, life is too short. Adam and I have talked about fixing up a van and exploring the backyards of the U.S. while eventually finding our way to and through Central and South America. It is interesting to me that traveling has lent me the encouragement to see where I am from.
As far as what is happening right now, Adam is in Alaska for work while I bop around New Hampshire and Vermont. Come summer we hope to find work outside in Washington or Oregon, until we can answer this question.
Images Courtesy of Karen Cygnarowicz and Adam Wilson