My companions had ridden off into the sunset, the sunset in this case being Cambodia. My passport was completely full, and I felt certain that I was nowhere near charming or rich enough to convince a Cambodian border guard to let me through with a wink and a wad of cash, so I was left to my own devices in Vietnam. I had already been to the south, and so I set off into the distant wilds (approximately two hours on a bus) to Huế.
Taxi drivers swarmed the outside of the bus like angry hornets. They spotted tourists on board and a frenzy began, chum spreading out across their waters. Some began scrambling for the baggage, removing trunks and backpacks and standing nearby, as though hoping the meagre effort would be rewarded with fawning thanks and the acceptance of an overpriced fare. It felt like a pretty poorly put-together dowry for such an interaction, but the sheer number of taxis and rickshaws wedged onto the sidewalk made it difficult to spent too much time scoffing.
I am good enough with directions and anal enough to have already printed out several maps, and I managed to orient myself within a few moments of stepping off the bus. These few instants of unsureness must have quickly glossed over my expression, as a dozen taxi drivers clamoured before me, trying to woo my business. I half-listened to their pitches, their suggestions of routes and hotels, while I figured out which direction to walk and how long it would take (assisted with directions by a pleasant elderly lady selling apples and hawthorn berries and not interested in supporting the military-taxi industrial complex). I was maybe two kilometres from my hotel, and for fun I decided to field a few offers for prices. I was told I would need to pay at least $30 for this journey, and as I walked away, numerous men caterwauled to the skies that I would surely die along the path, treacherous and unending as it was.
I checked into my room and managed to thwart the tourism-based advances of the main proprietress of the establishment. Sealed away in my single room, I basked for a moment. I had been travelling as one third of a triumvirate for nearly two months, and hadn’t been able to fathom sacrificing this brief burst of privacy for the price of a dorm room. I would eat the extra cost if it meant all the joys of solo-travel, of setting my own schedule, of always eating what I wanted, of sleeping and showering and dining whenever I wanted.
Of course, being a solo traveller marked me as a moneyed, lonely rube, and out in the city I became a prime target for every solicitation and offer. Within the span of a given 24 period I had refused over 14 different boat rides, nearly a hundred different pairs of sunglasses, all sorts of desperate restaurants, and at least a dozen separate offers for marijuana or prostitutes. Didn’t I want company, the plaintive inquires seemed to imply. Didn’t I need a boat ride slammed with other rich dumb foreigners who also liked noodles and DSLR cameras? Wasn’t independence exhausting? Didn’t I want to just forego self care and allow the hardworking Vietnamese people to shuttle me around, spoon-feeding my stupid mouth by hand, all but physically directing my gaze at what was deemed important and pretty by the tour guides?
I walked one day to the Citadel, camera strap wrapped around my wrist, sweat pooling behind the arms of my sunglasses. The hotel owner had begun prodding me again about package tours, nebulously implying that maybe my breakfast wouldn’t be so free if I wasn’t willing to pony up and buy some guided excursions to Hoi An or the tombs. Did I want a personal assistant to lead me through the citadel? Did I want the citadel to be included on a day-long air-conditioned bus tour with Authentic Vietnamese Lunch, textile factory excursion, and complimentary hand-holding?
But I was swollen with pride, stingy with my cash, and unduly confident in myself and my abilities. I needed no tour. I needed no extensive history lesson. I needed no several additional free bottles of chilled water (well, I could have done with this last one). I was a solo traveller, and I would conquer all of central Vietnam by myself if I had to!
The citadel forms most of Huế over the bridges in the north of the city, and several tours pass through it during the early and later parts of the day. During the hot hours the grounds are largely empty, and quiet. They are still scarred from the Vietnam war, pockmarked with dented earth, with half-together buildings, with overgrowth and wildlife. It is a miniature Life After People exhibit, plants reclaiming bricks, vines swallowing man-hewn stone, animals staking out new territory. Vietnamese history slowly being eaten up by time and war and the earth.
I walked the Citadel alone, occasionally stumbling into the same German man, the same Japanese woman similarly exploring on their own time. We nodded, but did not speak. We felt like ghosts wandering this place, each from a different era. Chickens and roosters wandered freely. A pony grazed the field that grows between two dilapidated pagodas. Bells rusted silent refrained from swaying in the breeze.
I chose what to eat, and where, and when, and slept for as long as I want. When the desire struck, I caved in to peer pressure and bestowed upon my hotel proprietor my tourist business, and allowed her to arrange for me to be whisked off to all number of tombs and boats. I made friends who I associated with for exactly three hours, and then calmly never saw them again. I stalled a half-kilometer behind the tour guide so I can explore on my own, and rushed to catch the bus to the next destination when I lost track of time. I read maps and pamphlets and used my compass and found new paths.
I don’t often travel alone, but it certainly has its charms. I can set my own itinerary, I can eat whatever I like. I can spend as much or as little as I feel like. I can walk to where I want to walk, and see what I want to see, and when I get there, I can take all the time in the world to fumble with my enormous, clunky DSLR trying to get a pretty picture of a ramshackle archway. I can stay in an ancient citadel all day, or sprawl like a fatted seal below my air conditioner and watch a marathon of Adventure Time on the Vietnamese cartoon network. What I do, I do of my own volition: my successes and failures all belong to me. I go, or do not go, where my own feet take me.