Reflections: Six Weeks into Our Life Sabbatical

It’s been about six weeks since we left the comfortable confines of DC for the exciting, exotic, and unpredictable world of our life sabbatical. In that time, we’ve traveled through much of northern Vietnam—including Hanoi, Sapa, and the Ha Giang Loop—and are now heading through the southern part of the country. We’ve eaten strange foods, most of which we’d eat again. We’ve met a number of people doing similar things (most from Europe and Australia). And Daniela and I have learned a good deal about each other and how we travel.

A week into our journey I wrote about our mental state. At that time, it was a kind of numbness as our minds grappled with the fact that we weren’t merely on vacation but actually living a new kind of life on the road. Now, a few weeks later, how are we feeling?

In General, We Feel Pretty Good

Every day that goes by feels a little less like vacation and a little more like a new reality. And, for the most part, that’s a good feeling. It allows us to move a bit more slowly, to forgive ourselves for not stopping at every sight we pass, and to soak in far more of the day-to-day around us than we ever would if we had only a short time for our vacation. It’s true that when you lose that vacation feeling, you also lose the excitement of putting your cares and work and, yes, life pretty much on hold for a week or two. But moving away from a vacation perspective has also given us space we both were craving to mentally shift towards our new reality.

At the same time, Vietnam has wowed us. When we left, we didn’t have a clear sense of how long we wanted to spend here. But neither of us expected that we’d still be going strong here approaching two months. And we’re not exactly dawdling at each stop either—it’s just that between the exhilaration of Hanoi, the novelty of trekking and homestays, the thrill of motorcycle rides through the mountains, and the peace of Ba Be and Pu Luong national parks, we haven’t gotten bored yet.

The people have also blown us away. The Vietnamese—even those outside the service industry—are unfailingly generous, warm, and welcoming, if a little pushy at times when trying to sell or upsell something. To put an American overlay on it, by and large they combine Southern charm and hospitality, along with a healthy dose of Californian casualness, a dollop of a New Yorker’s aggressiveness, with a fierce entrepreneurial spirit. People think nothing of welcoming you into their home, and of giving you the best of what they have—whether a room, their food, or just going out of their way to share information.

Perhaps some of this also stems from the fact that the Vietnamese seem to really love Americans (and westerners generally). We haven’t felt a single instance of anti-Americanism, perhaps surprising given our two countries’ complex history. Rather, almost everyone lights up when we tell them where we’re from, and children everywhere wave and shout “hello” when they see our faces.

I’m sure others more familiar with the context have written on why this is, but it feels to us like a combination of a number of factors: (1) since the US and Vietnam normalized relations about 25 years ago, Vietnam’s economy has grown tremendously, in large part through exports to the US and other western countries; (2) we’ve sensed an undercurrent of anti-China sentiment, both due to the historical colonial relationship and more recent tensions over resources and territory, and the US is seen as a bulwark against that growing power; (3) a recognition of the fact that tourism is a huge part of Vietnam’s economy; (4) soft power from western pop culture—from Superman to all of the Netflix shows; and (5) the lingering celebrity of Barack Obama.

All of which is to say, we’re growing more comfortable with our new reality, and loving the country we’re in. But it hasn’t been perfect.

There Are Plenty of Struggles

At the same time that we’re increasingly settling into our new lives, we’re also becoming increasingly aware of some of the challenges we’ll face on this trip.

For one, it’s not easy moving locations as often as we are. With the exception of our first week in Hanoi, we’ve moved locations at least twice each week, and some weeks 4-5 times. That’s a lot of packing and unpacking and finding the next night’s lodging and doing laundry in the sink to make sure we have clean clothes. I’m editing this post on a 7 hour train ride that followed a 3 hour car ride; the Acela this is not. That pace has been exhausting at times, and we’ll likely need to slow down a bit to retain our patience and sanity.

It’s also been hard, at times, to find healthy pescetarian food for Daniela. Because we often stay in homestays (where the family cooks dinner) or small towns (where there may only be a couple restaurants), there aren’t always a ton of options. Simply finding enough calories for her isn’t a problem at all: there are plenty of rice and veggies at almost every meal. But nearly all veggies that aren’t cooked with meat are stir-fried in oil. Nearly all the rice is white. And most of the fish is fried. At home, we eat a lot of steamed or raw vegetables, with a variety of whole grain starches (bread, quinoa, brown rice), and mainly grilled fish—so the heaviness and lack of variety of some of the meals has started to weigh on us at times. (That said, the fruit in Vietnam is plentiful and tropical and wonderful—with breakfast this morning we were served banana, mango, passion fruit, pineapple, oranges, *and* dragonfruit!)

One other emerging challenge has been to find a routine even within our lack of routine. I’ve always sought comfort in routine, but here it’s almost impossible to find or create one. As a result, I see myself setting arbitrary standards and expectations for myself: I have to read X chapters in my book today. Or spend Y time studying languages (I’m trying to practice my mediocre Russian, Chinese, and Spanish on the road). Or clear my emails every day. It can make me less present during some of the spectacular things we’re doing as I create my own stress. That’s definitely something I wasn’t expecting and will need to watch out for.
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Sunset over Ba Be Lake, by JD Travel

Six weeks into our life sabbatical feels very different from a week in. Mostly for good as we’ve settled into our lives. But we’re also starting to chafe at some of the difficulties inherent in a trip like this around routine, travel, food, and activity. We’re both excited to see how the next month goes, and looking forward to continuing our mental evolution.

2 thoughts on “Reflections: Six Weeks into Our Life Sabbatical

  1. Rutie

    so exciting to read it! your insights are most enlightening. as one who always relished “spontaneity”, your (and now my, as I “mature”) need for stability and routine is amazing. Routine is also a great springboard to do things unexpected from.
    Keep on tracking and enjoying this excursion. your challenges are worthwhile.

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