A powerful meeting in Hanoi

The fan is cooling me. Kind of. I am shirtless, sweaty and surrounded by backpackers. I am on on the 5th floor of the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, the communal space with internet access, a pool table and couches with young, sweaty kids reading books, staring in their phones or preparing their bags as they are heading off to their next destination. I have a bag of lychees within reach.

I feel quite emotional, stirred up. As if I can start crying any minute. These are the times that I want to write because I know I have a chance to dig up something essential. I can feel the knot and I know I can untie it. And I am not too afraid of crying in public. But a little bit more peace and quiet around me would be helpful. So I want to write and I do not.

When I left Laos I said goodbye to the Shakti Princess and entered a new chapter in my journey. I went to Vietnam. I made friends with a 29 year old Canadian guy on the airport. We hung out the last couple of days, went to Halong Bay together. This morning he left on his newly bought second hand motor cycle to explore North Vietnam. Another goodbye. During our trip to Halong Bay we connected with a 22 year old woman from New Zealand. She is sitting next to me now but I will leave in 2 hours. That will be goodbye number 3 in less than a week.

Of course I meet and have met a million other people too but some meetings stand out. They are different. And it saddens me that I have to let go of these moments too. Life is an ongoing practice of letting go, traveling just amplifies what is happening all the time. I know that by now.

It just feels so raw.

I am afraid of what comes next.

I started this journey with the intention of searching for inspiring people. I did not know how to define ‘inspiring’ (and I still don’t). I had high profile people in mind. Secretly I wished I would meet Nelson Mandela. But I haven’t been courageous enough to approach this kind of people. I do believe have met inspiring people though and I certainly had inspiring meetings.

Yesterday I woke up on a boat in Halong Bay, a stunningly beautiful manifestation of nature. My heavily tattooed roommate had already snuck out with my yoga mat to do some practice on the sun deck. He had come to Asia for a mental re-set, in his own words. He served 2 tours in Afghanistan. To say that his body is still intact would be an understatement; that dude is ripped. But he admits that he has lived through things that no human should have to experience and it will take time, patience and dedication to heal from that.

He would have bursts of socializing followed by bits of alone time. He decided to stay on the boat when the group was sent for the kayaking part on the program. His absence meant that it would now be a bit of a surprise who would want to kayak with me, as most of the participants traveled couples or small groups. Luckily somebody volunteered: it was the girl from New Zealand.

Because she is tiny and I am big I would take the back seat. The water was flat, the scenery beautiful and peaceful. After a couple of minutes she told me that it was an amazing moment for her. For many years she had suffered from a phobia of the ocean. Being surrounded by water without being paralyzed from fear was utterly unthinkable until not so long ago.

I could not see her face and to be able to hear what she was saying I had to stop paddling. I asked her if she knew what was underneath the fear of the ocean. We were just floating when she told me how she conquered anorexia two years back. The fear of the ocean and the food disorder was connected to a deeper fear of life. I know this fear of life, I believe we all suffer from it. I told her what I know. We had our first moment of recognition.

During the bus ride back my Canadian friend showed me pictures from Afghanistan. As the young lady from New Zealand was sitting next to me she also listened to the story. It was a very powerful experience to watch and listen to the personal stories of a soldier casually showing pictures taken before and after a firefight, during breaks at base camp, being goofy with his friends and being floored and dirty after an exhausting mission. We learned that wet soldiers boots don’t come from walking through water but from sweat, that some of the guys in the pictures didn’t come back home and that dressing up like a super hero in the Afghani dessert on Halloween gets you in trouble and that it is worth it.

I was never so close to combat.

I have felt the impact of war on people in Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq but this was different.

The way he spoke about his friends, some dead, some wounded, some alive, was touching. It was as if we were there. It felt as if listening to the descriptions and anecdotes of the guys who didn’t make it and seeing their smiles in the pics made their short existence more meaningful. Or maybe just listening and hearing about their foolishness and heroism made my life more meaningful.

We went to dinner that night. And I saw us. We were 3 people who all decided to heal ourselves at a certain point in time. I took my decision in 2003, both my friends in 2011. For some reason (for that reason?) we had some sort of special bond.

Soon we will be all going on separate ways. Today, I find that hard to swallow.


  1. Diederik says

    First of all like to say it’s always a pleasure reading your posts! Atalwin i know you can meet the ones you like to meet. The kind of people you refer to are equal to the ones you meet spontanuasly. Just pick three and write them an email.
    I am confident you will at least meet one of them…..

    Dont know why but needed to let you know.


  2. Tamara Groen says

    I really feel you… just arrived home again after 9 months… all the beautiful souls I met… cannot call for a cup of tea tomorrow…

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