We had been travelling together for over a month, had seen three separate countries, had spent countless hours with one another. We had taken meals together, slept in the same rooms, waited for one another to finish hogging the damned bathroom. We had helped carry heavy backpacks, helped each other fill out immigration forms, helped each other recover from hangovers. We had talked constantly: about life, about the world, about teaching, about Korea, about ourselves. I knew Faith and Ty about as closely as I could know anyone, and the only step further I could have taken would have been to begin collecting blood and hair samples for DNA analysis.
We were running low on things to talk about.
Thus when we arrived in Hanoi, Faith suggested we construct a scavenger hunt. Sitting in a café, face deep in bowls of phở, we began coming up with ideas of what strange, bewildering sights we might try to seek in Vietnam. I had been to the country once before and chose some things to make the game more challenging and competitive. But really, we just needed a change of pace. We were going to eat the food, we were going to see the things, we were going to walk the walks. Couldn’t we also be on the hunt for interesting novelty along the way?
Challenge: Find Someone Wearing Red Shoes
As we exit the café where we have designed the scavenger hunt, Ty points into an opposing coffee shop. A woman is sitting at a table, sipping Vietnamese caphe, a magazine spread before her. She is wearing red shoes. Ty gains a point, and Faith and I grumble.
Challenge: Find a Gangnam Style T-Shirt
We had endured Gangnam Style fever through its entire lifespan in Korea, which preceded its takeover of southern Asia and the world by several months. For us, we were now approaching about month 9 or 10 of Gangnam Mania, and our journey through Malaysia and Thailand had already produced numerous encounters with Psy-phernalia. Hanoi, a hub of cheap shopping, a city essentially built around motorcycle usage and t-shirt sales, should definitely have the specified item.
We search for days and come up empty. There are dozens of different variations of the Vietnamese flag in t-shirt form, accompanied by all manner of hammer-and-sickle emblems, and numerous, stylized versions of Uncle Ho. We search high and low, standing stock still and stupid in the middle of crowded sidewalks as we quickly take stock of nearby t-shirt shanties. Store owners spot our greedy gawping and eagerly wave us over, three lonely travellers looking for comfort in the embrace of a soft new t-shirt. In moments they see us turn up our noses without a single word and stomp off into the distance, and they are left bereft, confused, standing before an array of Communist-era emblems on red cotton, wondering what they could have done differently.
Challenge: Find a Dog in People Clothes
A cherished tradition the world over, we began carefully examining nearby canines for examples of highly embellished doggy sweaters, for hand-knit booties, for articles of clothing not originally designed for 4-legged physiology. Korea had been home to an enormous number of quivering purse dogs, creatures so tiny and so poorly adapted to living in the world that they needed pounds of additional clothing just for basic survival. Dogs were very rarely ever not in people clothes, and while Vietnam was warmer, we imagined dozens of Chihuahuas and Yorkies in tiny tank tops.We grew disappointed with time, realizing that all of the local dogs were repulsively au natural. The shame!
I think I once saw a dog with a man’s belt for a dog collar, but my compatriots decided that this did not count.
Challenge: 4+ Thanhs
A dear friend from the Korea days, Thanh’s name tended to be everywhere. The Vietnamese language looked simple to us at first, what with its delightfully accented Roman characters, until we realized that we were dumb and understood little. Still, we could see recurring themes, words and phrases that appeared over and over. Thanh was one of them.
The task was to locate a piece of signage containing “Thanh,” with or without accents, at least four times. Restaurants, shops, road markers, local maps: everything was scoured for that elusive combination. We came desperately close while walking along Đường Thành, reaching a critical mass of 3 Thanhs, but alas, would not find a true 4+ Thanh sign until exploring HCMC.
Challenge: Find Five People Riding on One Scooter
Having already survived the great crucible that is traffic in Ho Chi Minh City myself, I was well aware that Vietnamese people were particularly capable of jamming quite a few things onto speeding motorbikes. I had seen people transporting great loads of weight with impeccable balance and skill: enormous piles of heavy boxes, great wobbly bundles of produce, sometimes agitated livestock. But in the busy Saigon streets I had seen a trend in the maximum number of people you could cram onto a bike: generally three slender adults, or an adult and child combination adding up to four people. We had all seen some scooters with 4 people. Would we find the elusive five-ride?
Our eyes were now constantly on the road, scanning and counting every motorbike that scooted by, craning around to check if that extra bundle was a sack of rice or a squalling child. At a large outdoor festival, we decided even parked scooters counted, but were still disappointed by how many people simply made do with four riders.
Finally, barreling down the road of our hotel, we spotted them: dad upfront, boy and girl sandwiched between, and mom perched precariously on the very back, an infant strapped to her bosom around clavicle height. Five people, one scooter. They seemed to be riding out of a dream.
Challenge: Find Korean on a Sign
We were still feeling bereft in some ways. Korea was a month behind us, but it had still been two years of our lives, it had been the place where we met, and still held many of our memories and dozens of our friends. Finding Korean things was a hobby for us, anyway.
We started looking into shops, heading down alleys, stopping in stores and markets we usually would have skipped. We eventually found some Korean signage on a beauty shop packed with Korean brands, the three of us avidly peering through the large storefront, scanning every poster until we found Skin Food and claimed the scavenger point.
And we realized that we had come down an entirely unknown street, one which we may never have found otherwise. We were in a new part of the map. We were looking into stores we never thought to look at, investigating the signs and the people and the roads, trying to absorb weird, minute details. We had started the scavenger hunt to stop ourselves from getting bored while travelling, to keep things fresh. But the scavenger hunt was showing us new ways to look at the city – it was reminding us of the whole point of travel in the first place, of that constant need to discover. It reminded us of that spirit of wandering, of the chance decision to turn down a new corner, to enter a new restaurant, and to walk strange roads you’ve never seen before. The times when you put away the map, where you let the world take you where it’s going to take you, and just go.