Beauty in the Chaos By: Oanh-Mai

Beauty in the chaos:

I’m lying in bed, undies and bra. It’s 40 degrees Celsius here, and on days like these,you can’t catch a cool breeze anywhere. You jump on your motorbike, joining the sea of motorized vehicles in the haze of traffic that Hanoi calls ‘roads’, in hopes of feeling cool fresh air blow against your skin. Quickly you realize that the only air you’ll feel is that hot gust of bus exhaust that shoots out directly at your face and seems to lingereven when the bus is long gone. Days like this, I take a deep breath (unless that exhaust is still lingering, then I hold my breath) wonder how the F*** did I end up here……

A little prelude:

I did it, I left San Diego. Said goodbye to all my friends and embarked on what I hoped would be some epic journey into the unknown that is South East Asia. Why did I do it? Well I guess why not? I was born with the heart of a traveler. Since basically birth, I have been on the move. Not by choice, but I guess by cruel and lucky fate. At two years old I had left Belgium with my family. None of us spoke English, neither of my parents had jobs. We were the stereotypical immigrant family, living on couches, parents finding and losing work, my life being consistently uprooted in the search for stability. I hated the fact that I had to say goodbye so many times in my life, but in the end I always loved the adventure of it all. Maybe it was THIS point in my life that made me into the person I am today.

Stability scares me, on the move is what is natural, so I said goodbye to my “perfect” life in San Diego bought a ticket and a backpack and came out here- to the land of chaos and insanity, heat and bugs, monsoons and heat waves, jungles and rainforests, exotic fruits and Dog served as your entree meal.

Before embarking on this trip, a part of me was looking for answers. The same ones I think everyone searches in their twenties. Who I am? What am I going to do with my life? What type of person am I going to be? What do I really want? ….So forth. Like many other backpackers, I had an unrealistic expectation of finding all the answers that traveling had to offer. For those of you reading this for tips about traveling, I would say this is the most important thing I can say about it all: THROW OUT THE IDEA THAT YOU WILL FIND YOURSELF WHEN TRAVELING. This is garbage; a lie that Hollywood fabricated to sell movies. Your backpack experience will in no way be like Eat, pray, love. The profound meaning of life will probably never appear, especially not on a backpack frenzied island, drinking methamphetamine red bulls and buckets of booze. Sorry, for those whose bubbles I just burst- but backpacking is not about that.

So why do people do it? If traveling does not hold all the keys to the questions need answers for, why partake in this expensive pass time. Well, because although you will not find yourself here- what will happen is you will lose yourself. Traveling is violent experience. It turns you around, twist you upside down, rips you apart and sews you back up as a new person. You don’t always see it until you get back, but I can assure you it does. It provides you with no clarification as to the ways of the world. Instead, it opens doors to the world that you never knew existed. It shows you that there are other ways to live. There are other ways to survive. There are other ways to love. There are other ways to define happiness.

What Vietnam has Taught Me:
We are trained from birth to believe there is a simple formula to having a fulfilled and happy life. It goes like this: Go to school, do well in school, get a degree, get a good/high salary paying job, find a husband or wife, get married, have children, and one day retire. For me, traveling was a revelation because I realized that this happily ever ending story is misleading. Not that you cannot get a lifetime of happiness by doing this, but rather that this is not the only way. This is not the only formula. It’s crazy to think that one formula for success could work for all types of people
from all shapes and cultures, right?

Vietnam is a place like no other. Vietnam is a walking contradiction. A country where logic, and reason do not always shape the rules and manner in which people live their lives. It is impossible to sum up one country in one short blog, but the best way of trying to explain and understand this country is by watching the traffic. 

When most people first arrive in Vietnam, the first thing they will notice is that this is a country run bymotorbikes. As travelers walk out onto the chaos that is Vietnam, they watch in horror as thousands zip off on their motorbikes, with no rule of law on the road. Terrified westerns idly stand by, scratching their heads and trying to understand how so many people can be moving at high speeds, in all directions at the same time. 
So how does one cross the road in the land where crosswalks and traffic lights are widely ignored? Really its rather simple, just take a breath, have a little faith and just go. You must confront the chaos with tranquility and calm. That is the best way I can sum up Vietnam and the Vietnamese people. In the midst of all the frenzies, and craziness, the Vietnamese people approach every aspect of life with a relaxed, cool and zen manner. There is no need to stress, to yell, to cry, all you need is take one very slow step at a time- eventually you will reach your destination.
Most really need to come here to truly understand this, to understand how Vietnam works. 

This place overall is remarkable. The people are strong, beautiful and different. They showed me paths I never knew existed, a way of thinking I had never considered. They showed me how to find beauty in all the chaos, and for that I am eternally grateful.


  1. Oanh-Mai,
    Thank you so much for sharing this, your story & your experience, both beautiful and ridiculously well said. And especially for calling out the “find yourself when you travel” bs. As long as I have been abroad, and traveling, I have wondered who these confused people were who “found themselves” while sleeping on a filthy couch in the middle of a random persons apartment. There is no light bulb that goes off in your head like “omg, this is who I am!” You put it perfectly, it IS where you lose yourself.

    I’m definitely going to share this with my half-Vietnamese friend, who is dying to go and see where her mom is from. Hope you continue to have a great time there, wishing you all the best.
    -Leslie Doye

    ps. I’ll be in Thailand on Saturday, and hopefully I’ll have the strength to cross the road in Bangkok 🙂

  2. Wow Ooma, you are a beautiful writer. This should be published. So happy to have stumbled upon this. I miss your rants and this is the best one I’ve ever heard. You are definitely missed in San Diego but we are not going anywhere. I love you Oooma!!

  3. Oanh-Mai! First off, each picture included only reaffirms how gorgeous and awesome you are. My favorite two are the motorcycle and boat. Secondly, I thoroughly enjoy your writing, your technique of story telling and tying everything together under one theme, in particular. I would love to read more.

  4. I love this Oanh-Mai. It absolutely inspires me to get back on the road! It also makes me so happy to have been your partner in crime all through West Africa. 🙂

    You’re the best. Miss you terribly!

    The real question is: Who killed Don?

  5. “Instead, (traveling) opens doors to the world that you never knew existed. It shows you that there are other ways to live. There are other ways to survive. There are other ways to love. There are other ways to define happiness.” Couldn’t have put it better myself. As always, very impressive and enriching. I want more Uma, tell us more!

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