My Path to Healing in South-East Asia (With the Help of a Few Stray Mutts)
Never leave your items unattended. Always keep your eyes peeled for dodgy characters. Sleep with your valuables on night trains. Don’t. Trust. Anyone.
They’re the basic rules instilled into every backpacker who’s about to embark on a journey through an unfamiliar country. Everyone has heard the horror travelling stories. Everyone has a friend or friend-of-a-friend whose trip became a nightmare.
My 2015 backpacking expedition through Europe had left an inherently nasty taste in my mouth for the “travel bug.” The trip of my dreams resulted in my very own story: rape in a dank Budapest hostel.
I carried that awful memory home in my baggage, along with a few extra kilos of depression and anxiety. Don’t let my throwaway comment about rape deter you, we’re all aware of the one-in-five victim stat, you all know someone who’s experienced sexual assault, whether they’ve told you or not.
But this isn’t about rape – this is about the experiences in Vietnam and Cambodia that sewed the fractured threads back together and alleviated my travel apprehensions.
It was July 2017 in the sweltering heat of south-east Asia. My boyfriend Jack and I had landed in Vietnam for a two-month trip and fuck me, it was beyond scorching. I was sweating from every crevice of my body. My anxiety was rampant.
Why? I didn’t know. I was excited! I couldn’t wait to be immersed in a new culture. But my anxiety was present nonetheless – all the warnings and experiences echoing forebodingly. Every traveller goes through this, I told myself. Stop being such a pussy and suck it the fuck up!
I sucked it the fuck up and ignored all the negatives my anxiety wouldn’t let me forget. We ventured out into the streets of Hanoi. My eyes were yanked open. Never had I been in the midst of such a beautifully chaotic city. I was instantaneously enthralled by the business of it all.
It was 7am and the whole city was awake. Men were smoking on the sidewalks, their t-shirts tied above their belly button – a genius innovation in this weather. The frenzied roads were filled with vehicles defying gravity. One motorbike balanced a large pot and a sky-high stack of bricks on the back. Children giggled and pointed at my boyfriend’s long, curly hair. A woman shooed a duck with a broom from her corner shop. How a duck made its way to a crowded city was beyond us.
My first encounter with a street dog came when I whistled over what looked like a sweet Labrador. Its response was a booming bark as it ran defensively at me. Up close, the growling hound was more a hybrid-mutt version of a Lab.
“You didn’t get a rabies shot,” Jack scolded me as we edged away. But that angry mongrel certainly wasn’t the last stray I would attempt to shower with love.
The most difficult adaption to make is crossing the manic roads. The traffic in Vietnam is unwavering, with cars and motorbikes zooming across one another. The never-ending sound of horn honks. There’s no uniformity, no rules: just pure chaos and an amplitude of near-miss crashes.
Day two in Hanoi and we nervously stood by the curb, waiting for a break that wouldn’t come. A small old man, hunched over, came right up beside us, said something in Vietnamese and gestured with his hands to follow him.
“Always keep your eyes peeled for dodgy characters.”
We accompanied him across the busy road, mirroring his maneuvers to avoid the traffic. It was a slow, careful leap of faith. He crossed steadily, not rushing, but with a confident purpose. We were amazed at the motorbikes that stopped for us and scooted past our party of three. Once we reached the other side of the road safely, we all let out a laugh.
The old man, smiling brightly and nodding as we thanked him in English – our Vietnamese was still below the basics. With that, we went our separate ways.
We trusted a stranger on the other side of the world. And so the layers began to shed from my cocoon of woeful worries.
It was 1am and I was awoken by the night train to Hue coming to a sudden halt. Our carriage door slid open and the fluorescent lights from outside revealed the figures of two women.
I waited for them to settle their suitcases in and climb to the bunks above Jack and myself. I let out a sigh of relief as I fell back into a comfortable slumber. They’re not pickpockets, just fellow train commuters.
“Sleep with your valuables on night trains.”
I heard a loud crunching when I opened my eyes and I was met with a Vietnamese woman sitting at the end of my bed, cracking the shell of an egg. I looked to my left to see Jack sat upright, laughing, as baffled as I was. The woman had two more eggs in a plastic bag. I recognised them as balut, the traditional delicacy of duck embryo. She offered them to me, speaking in Vietnamese.
I shook my head and attempted to express thanks with actions and broken words. She laughed and chatted away to us; we couldn’t understand a word. Her daughter was on the opposite bunk. We watched as they cracked each egg open, added salt and chatted happily through their breakfast.
Nothing was stolen from us on the night train – instead, we shared a compartment with a kind mother and daughter and the potential to have duck embryo for breakfast.
Our hotel in Sihanoukville, Cambodia was in the form of a bamboo bungalow right on the beach; our room door opened to the sand and sea. There was a pack of stray dogs on our end of the beach. They patrolled the sand and the beach shacks, Cambodia’s very own four-legged mafia.
Every day, I tried to pat each of them to no avail. They responded with deep growls any time I got too close. The only time the dogs wanted anything to do with me was when we were eating at the restaurant. A long-nailed paw would scratch at my leg with every bite.
One night, we found ourselves at Serendipity beach, on the other side of Sihanoukville. We had shared a “happy pizza” and when it came time to make the long drive, we were well and truly toasted.
The tuk-tuk we were in rattled, barely functioning as a safe vehicle, speeding into black abyss of the unknown. There were no lights on the dirt road and the dim light at the front of the tuk-tuk kept flickering on and off and on, until it was gone forever, and so the darkness engulfed us.
“Don’t. Trust. Anyone.”
The Cambodian driver kept saying something to us in his native tongue, but all I could think was, This is where I die.
Every awful story I’d heard before was bouncing through my mind. This is the beginning of every episode of Banged Up Abroad. And I was too high to do anything.
But before the worst imaginable could happen, we were home. I recognised our small shack on Otres beach, through the lights of the bar. The driver continued to apologise in Cambodian for the lack of light as we paid him.
And I once again exhaled out the toxic anxiety from the pit of my stomach.
The alpha female from the pack was curled up on the steps of our hut. I slowly reached out my hand for her to sniff.
She raised her head and I felt her hot breath on my skin. Recognising her receptive acceptance, I gently stroked her coarse coat. Stoked that my persistence finally gained the trust of the beach dog, I realised my own trust had been restored.
People can be trusted. Travelling can be magical. Terrible things happen all over the world. Crime occurs in my very own country.
I dove headfirst into the unknown, and the Sydney bubble that was so hard for me to escape from had been burst. South-east Asia, and the exceptional memories and people that came with it, cemented hope into the gaping hole where my anxiety normally lay dormant.
It’s okay to be fearful and anxious, but only through first-hand experience can the reality of our luck come to fruition. Flying back home to Australia, I felt more fortunate than ever to have a great big world ready to explore.
Like in the busy streets of Hanoi, sometimes all you need is a leap of faith.
Cover Manh Nghiem; inset by the author