I was 20 and supposed to be in a lecture hall at the University of Colorado. (I still believe that my peers and I are too young to know what we want to do with the rest of our lives.) This was my college halftime break, an attempt at figuring out my path.
The plan was half-assed but became official after an impulsive 3 a.m. ticket purchase to the capital city of Vietnam. I had never left the United States before. I had lived in the same 10 square miles for 19 years. I didn't speak any of the language.
It was a strange feeling to stand in DIA, looking around the terminal and knowing that this would be the last time I would be within that structure. English signs, white people, clean, well, clean everything, would not be common.
Gus (my travel partner) and I flew west over the mountains. I could see my school from the air: the Flatirons, the campus, even my neighborhood. It was symbolic to fly past it all on a Monday morning of all times.
We landed in Ho Chi Minh City and for the first time in my life, I was the minority. Over the intercom it was Vietnamese that was spoken first, then English. This is their land; you now come second.
We went through the visa gate like herded cattle, got our bags from the carousel and exchanged $100 for around 2,080,00 Vietnam dong. We looked like children fumbling with our money while trying to find places to stash it, pretending that we knew the value of each bill.
We sat at some bar in the city with Vietnamese music providing the ambiance. We were finally there, sitting silently in awe. It was hard to believe where we were -- partly from the lack of sleep, partly because it was hard to believe where we were. A little girl no older than six was walking up to each person in the darkness, attempting to sell gum. There was a man with twisted legs, an obvious victim of Agent Orange, dragging himself down the street. For a moment I felt like I would cry.
Foreigners are a dollar sign, but the people were still as intrigued with us as we were with them. Locals walk by and say "hello" to which I responded "sin jchow." Body language is the universal communicator. Eye contact is understood by all, even the chickens on the street.
We went out to eat and met an American from California who was perched on a miniature chair, the standard furniture for street dining. His name was Doug, but his friends called him Booya. About 60ish years old, he was here once before for the war and had an unhealed leg wound to prove it. He now makes fly fishing shorts and has a new "girlfriend" every two weeks that he meets at local coffee shops; he assured us that they "speak pretty good English."
We got to talking and told him of our haphazard plans to purchase motorbikes from a man 20 miles outside of town. He offered to take us there.
That's when we left.
Myles Wallingford is a junior at CU majoring in media. You can follow his travel adventures through Southeast Asia every Tuesday in March in the Colorado Daily.