After weeks of bustling around Vietnam—a few days in Ha Long Bay and Bai Tu Long Bay and a brief excursion up to the beautiful Sa Pa—I came back to the welcoming, coffee-loving arms of Hanoi, which quickly became my new favorite place.
I didn’t expect to fall in love with Hanoi, but I did.
Hordes of motorbikes sped by as my taxi wove through the tight streets of Hanoi, Vietnam. Signs and billboards flashed at me. Vietnamese words were scrawled across them—but at least this time, I thought, the alphabet was Romanized.
I’d been on the road for about six months, had traveled to Japan, South Korea, India, Nepal, and Myanmar. Donald Trump had just won the U.S. presidency, and I’d slept off my post-election depression and fatigue in Yangon, Myanmar, like a champ.
Here I was, another new country, another new city, another new language—starting over yet again, unsure of myself and harboring lingering doubts about having sold all my things to take this yearlong journey through Asia and maybe beyond.
Life is a balance of holding on and letting go. –Rumi
I shake out the handful of journals that are stuffed into a sack in the top of my backpack. They tumble onto the bed at the Airbnb where I’m staying in Bali. I shuffle through the journals and notebooks, trying to remember which covers go with what countries.
It is April. I’ve been on the road for almost a year.
I flip through them and find entries from Kathmandu and Pokhara, Nepal. The journal closes with a single entry from my time in Yangon, Myanmar, the country I visited after Nepal, but it is only a couple pages.
I grab the journal I think comes next, sure it will hold more entries documenting my experiences there. But when I feel its fabric cover under my fingers, I remember—I bought this one in Vietnam, the country I went to after Myanmar, one sunny morning as I wandered the zigzagging streets near Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
I shake my head and look at the leather- and fabric-bound covers strewn across the bedspread. This can’t be right, I think.
I drag out other notebooks—ones where I write drafts and jot down ideas. They’re not organized like my journals, which are chronological even if they are stream-of-consciousness. There must be a scrap, I think. There must be something more.
As with anyone who takes a trip like this, what goes in your pack and what gets left out is an ongoing process. I overpacked to start with, but within a few months, my pack was down to a better fighting weight, and I’ve been rolling with the same svelte existence since.
Not all packing lists are created equal, and there will always be things you wish you’d brought and others you wish you’d left behind. And some things you won’t even know you need until you’re on the road.
As a writer and introvert, one of my greatest quests over this year of travel is to find quiet places to get away to where I can write, read, and be—without breaking the bank. Here are five places I found during my time in Asia that gave me the space I needed to write, seek silence, and find inspiration.
I stayed at Jirye Art Village outside of Andong, South Korea, for over a week last summer, and it was just the quiet getaway I needed after weeks in the bustling metropolis of Seoul.
The Jirye Art Village is comprised of a series of historical buildings that were rescued from demolition by Korean poet Kim Won-gil. The buildings, built circa 1660, belonged to his family, and in 1990, when they were threatened by a dam being built nearby, Kim managed to get permission to move 10 buildings 200 meters up the mountains to their current position.
My guide smiled at me over our steaming bowls of vegetable soup. He’d shown me around Kathmandu’s famous Durbar Square and shrugged as if the question encompassed all we’d spoken about. His struggles to make ends meet. His conversion to Christianity. His attempts to be an honest guide in the midst of touts and scammers.
I smiled back and looked at the buildings around us. We were sitting in a rooftop café by the Square, looking at the intricately carved wooden structures and the remains of ancient buildings destroyed by the earthquake that shook the Kathmandu Valley in April 2015.
An introvert at heart, I could feel myself shutting down. Some quiet time our last morning in Dharamsala and some rejuvenation at the Golden Temple in Amritsar boosted me enough to make it to Rishikesh in one spiritual/mental piece.
And once there, my first thought was “Rishikesh is heaven.”
Rishikesh is considered by many to be the “yoga capital of the world,” and as such, it is unsurprisingly filled with yogis from all over the world and, thus, a considerable number of tourists (for better or worse).
I was sitting in front of the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the sun warm on my back, musicians playing and singing hymns before me, on the day I could’ve heard the Dalai Lama speak in Dharamsala.
Three days before, we’d arrived in Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan-government-in-exile. While there, we found out that the Dalai Lama was actually in town (a rare occurrence with his packed, worldwide speaking schedule) and that we could sign up the next day to be present for his next public audience.
The only snag was that he would speaking two days later—when our tour was already going to be on the road for Amritsar, a city in northwest India, a half-day’s drive and train ride west of Dharamsala.
Prayer flags trembling in the breeze. The firm, golden gaze of a seated Buddha. Artists’ hands at work, creating something holy. A single sign of imperfection, and hours—days—of labor would be cast aside.
When we arrived at the town that is home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile, I expected to be overwhelmed by the place’s holiness. Certainly, numerous pilgrims come from around the world to meditate or engage in in alternative therapies or to try to get a glimpse of the holy man himself. Others simply come to the temple that adjoins his house, offering supplications to Buddha alongside maroon-glad monks with shaved heads.