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Jun 22, 2023

Unconventional Journeys Reveal Transformative Lessons

When Tống Viết Nam was 23 years old, he embarked on a 29-day journey through Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar with only VND13 million as his budget.
Unconventional Journeys Reveal Transformative Lessons

Source: Tống Viết Nam

(According to Tống Viết Nam's account)

As a seasoned tour guide with seven years of experience, I’ve traveled through all 63 provinces and cities across Vietnam, and nine countries. Yet, my first backpacking trip remains vivid in my memory. It was a 29-day adventure across four Southeast Asian countries in April 2014, when I was 23 years old, accompanied by a few friends.

For that journey, I didn't prepare much. I had some money in my account, a backpack with three sets of clothes, a tent, and basic cooking equipment. We set off without much thought. Our youthful spirit drove us as we spontaneously explored the water festival in Laos, ventured through Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar, and continued until our money ran out.

Back then, the concept of backpacking (đi phượt) wasn't as widespread as it is now. During that trip, we avoided hotels and restaurants. Instead, we bought food at local markets, froze it, and cooked it along the way. We took breaks to appreciate the scenic spots and paused to satisfy our hunger. In the evenings, we would find places to pitch our tents, whether a temple or a gas station. Showering often meant using the facilities at the gas stations.

During the immigration process into Thailand, the Thai border guards, who surprisingly spoke Vietnamese, said to us, “Vietnamese nationals entering the country must pay $100 US dollars.”

Due to the lack of money, I resorted to begging. After some time, I was led to a separate room, where I waited until noon. Then, a station chief entered and asked in Vietnamese:

“What is the purpose of your visit to our country?” - He spoke with a hint of suspicion, his expression lacking goodwill.

“I intended to travel through Myanmar on a motorcycle, but to reach there, I had to pass through Thailand,” I explained.

With a stern demeanor, he emphasized, "Very well, however, it is mandatory for you to sign a commitment indicating that you will not overstay or partake in any illegal work during your time here." Handing me a sheet of paper, indicating where I should sign.

Rather than getting upset, my friends and I willingly signed the commitment. I understood that displaying frustration or anger would make our situation more difficult and a waste of time. If we hadn't done anything wrong, it was best to calmly explain our intentions.

Afterward, I spent seven days in Bangkok before proceeding to Myanmar. Upon concluding my exploration of Myanmar, I returned to Thailand. While my friends continued to Singapore by train, I had to return to Vietnam due to depleted finances. This 29-day journey cost me VND13 million, and it was embarked upon without a detailed plan. Through this experience, I realized that I not only discovered the joy of backpacking but also successfully pushed beyond my comfort zone.

From that trip onward, I became more conscious of the preparations required for future travels, including acquiring knowledge about the destination, financial planning, essential equipment, physical fitness, food and drink provisions, and suitable clothing. These considerations have allowed me to have more fulfilling and complete travel experiences.

Since then, I have embarked on numerous journeys, each with its unique aspects. It is safe to say that I have grown and gained invaluable lessons through these trips, which continue to shape my perspective.

I have grown and gained invaluable lessons through these trips, which continue to shape my perspective. | Source: Tống Viết Nam

Happiness extends beyond the boundaries of our homes.

Our homes serve as our universe. That was true for me as a child. It wasn't until I dared to step outside my known world, when the wanderlust whispered, that I discovered so much more. Through these journeys, I found my passion for travel.

When I stopped in Myanmar during my Southeast Asian adventure, I pitched my tent beside a Bagan temple, waiting for the hot air balloons to take flight as dawn broke. The sight of these balloons gracefully ascending in the soft morning light left a profound impression on me. It was a sight that I had never experienced, resonating deeply within me.

The second time I felt such overwhelming awe was in Nepal in April 2022. After days of trekking to the Everest Base Camp and crossing the Chola Pass en route to Gokyo Lake, one of Nepal's highest lakes, I turned around and beheld an extraordinary sight. As the sun rose, casting a golden glow on the snow-capped peaks behind me, I stood motionless, captivated by the beauty before me. Witnessing such a magnificent display of a blue sky and golden-tinted mountains took me to venturing far from home.

The magnificent display of a blue sky and golden-tinted mountains | Source: Tống Viết Nam

While there is undoubtedly joy in the comfort of our homes, it is essential to venture outside and explore. In Bhutan, known as the "happiest country in the world," the locals believe that genuine happiness is derived from understanding oneself, fostering connections with others, and living in harmony with nature. These are valuable lessons that become more accessible as we embark on new adventures.

Adaptability is more important than health.

Anyone facing adversity will contemplate giving up, especially during grueling journeys. My trip to Nepal was a major test of awareness, resilience, and adaptability, given the numerous challenges that came with the Everest Base Camp conquest.

Unfortunate events piled up when I landed at Tribhuvan Airport in Nepal. There was no shuttle, forcing me to walk from the runway to the airport, and the following day, my domestic flight to the trekking trail was delayed by 8 hours before being canceled without any prior notice.

Then, I had to switch to the Ramechhap domestic airport, only for my flight to be delayed for nearly half a day again. Upon inquiry, I learned that these occurrences were commonplace in Nepal. When I finally managed to board, the pungent smell of petrol and the rattling sounds of the aircraft were unnerving. It was only when I safely landed at Lukla airport that I could breathe a sigh of relief. Despite all these challenges, the local people continued to live - even thrive - in tranquility and happiness. This was my first lesson in adaptability.

Tống Viết Nam on the journey to conquer Everest Base Camp | Source: Tống Viết Nam

The first three days of my journey to conquer Everest Base Camp were relatively smooth. But as we ascended above 3500 meters, vegetation disappeared, replaced only by rock and ice. At 4900 meters, I started experiencing altitude sickness. I had always considered myself healthy, capable of climbing the Fansipan mountain in a single day. Yet, at that altitude, I felt incredibly weak. That's when I realized that for climbing towering mountains like Everest, adaptability is even more crucial than health.

When fatigue overwhelmed me, I succumbed to dry heaves and had to rest on a rock. Rescue helicopters flew persistently before my eyes, carrying those suffering from altitude sickness back to safety. “Perhaps it's time to give up, I can't handle this anymore,” I thought.

But as I closed my eyes, I recalled my arduous journey to reach this altitude. Determined, I pushed myself up and ascended until I reached 5100 meters (Gorakshep), where I decided to stay overnight. That night, I couldn't sleep; my entire body ached, and I had to take Efferalgan to alleviate the pain.

The next day, I moved incredibly slowly, but after three hours, I finally reached Everest Base Camp. When I hoisted the Vietnamese flag and signed my name on the "checkpoint" stone, I couldn't hold back my tears.

Source: Tống Viết Nam

On our return journey, we crossed the Chola Pass and walked 3 km on an eternal ice stream. There, I encountered a barefoot yogi, which led me once more to contemplate adaptability. Upon reaching Gokyo Lake, close to the endpoint of the Everest Base Camp expedition, all my exhaustion evaporated, replaced by awe at the surrounding beauty. We hugged each other, overcome by emotion, and cried.

Perhaps life isn't genuinely difficult when we accept what comes our way and learn to adapt to it. Sometimes, our lack and deprivation make us realize how much greater our capabilities are than we've ever imagined.

Precious Relationships May Be Found Along Challenging Paths

Once, while heading back to Hoang Su Phi (Ha Giang) by motorbike, a few friends and I lost our way in the Tay Con Linh forest, a reputedly "sacred and poisonous forest" in the northern mountains. The further we went, the deeper we got lost. By 4 p.m., we were still struggling to find our way on the increasingly difficult terrain, amidst fallen trees. At that point, continuing would only lead us deeper into the forest. While daylight remained, it was prudent to halt, find a safe spot, gather firewood, and resolve to spend the night in the forest.

After securing a campsite and delegating the task of gathering firewood to the others, I took off on my bike to seek help, hoping to return for my friends. An hour later, just as despair was beginning to creep in, I noticed a local's motorcycle by the roadside. About fifteen minutes later, a local resident emerged carrying a sack. When I waved to him, he dropped his sack and ran.

I chased after him and shouted, “Please help us. We’re lost!” He stopped, studied me for a moment, then gave me directions. As the way back was too convoluted, he led us on his bike to a junction near the border. We took a right towards the concrete road while our good Samaritan turned left to head home. That kind-hearted stranger was named A Sanh. I would dread our fate if we had not met him that day.

Each trip gifts me a rich tapestry of cherished relationships. I encounter dear friends ready to share trials, highland locals offering me a place to call home, food, and shelter, and talented peers with whom I launch ventures.

Each trip gifts Tống Viết Nam a rich tapestry of cherished relationships, one of which is... a girlfriend. | Source: Tống Viết Nam


The key lesson from my travels? Acceptance. Embrace life’s opportunities, savor the joy in the world beyond, face adversity with equanimity, and welcome strangers into your journey.

“Travel to mature might sound hackneyed, but each journey affirms this truth. Travel helps us discover ourselves and the world. Staying confined to our homes keeps us small. So, don’t hold back; just keep moving.”