I stepped out of my hostel and onto the sidewalk in the backpacker district. The storefronts were packed with women visiting as they sat on short, plastic stools, and men ate bowls of pho with chopsticks from street vendors.
On my first day in Hanoi, Vietnam, the humidity was heavy, and the lens on my camera immediately fogged up. My shirt began to feel clammy on my back, and it was barely 9:00 in the morning. I stood on the sidewalk, taking in the sights around me: The tangled mess of electrical wire on the poles that lined the street. Motorbikes packed with people weaving in and out of each other with no discernible pattern. Shallow stores were piled with snacks and beverages labeled with indecipherable symbols.
I walked down the sidewalk, holding my camera with one hand while trying to take everything in without being too obvious. When I reached an intersection, I recalled what I'd read about crossing the roads in Vietnam: Go slowly, steadily and confidently. I stepped off the curb and into the traffic. I could feel my heartbeat speed up and the voice of common sense slowly taunting, "You're going to die." I put one foot in front of the other, going completely against all the things I knew about crossing the road in the United States. As I walked, the traffic parted around me just as it did for everyone else.
Safely on the other side, I continued on my way-to where, I didn't know. I navigated around people socializing and children playing and stepped off of the street's curb when I encountered rows of motorbikes that had been parked on the sidewalk.
My shirt stuck to my back as I wandered south of my hostel to Hoan Kiem Lake, a large body of water surrounded by a park. With no plans to be anywhere else, I crossed a red bridge to a small island. A sign on a ticket booth said 10,000VND-about fifty American cents. I pulled a bill soggy with sweat from my pocket and handed it to the woman behind the window. She smiled, muttered a few words in the local language and pointed toward a large temple.
The Ngoc Son Temple, erected in the 18th century, honors a former Vietnamese military leader. It was outfitted in bold colors, large metal statues, gaudy trinkets and elaborate displays of plastic flowers and beads. Small offerings of money and cigarettes sat in piles among the displays throughout the temple. Women dressed in slacks and blouses-as if they were just on their way to work-held bundles of incense fanned out at their forehead, the smoke drifting upwards as they prayed.
I sat on a bench, mesmerized by this elaborate offering to an elusive person who lived several hundred years before the United States was even a dream. This wasn't the first time on my travels that I'd been smacked in the face by the realization of how old some societies in the world really are. A similar situation, outside an old dorm hall in Copenhagen, Denmark, had stayed with me long after we walked by the building.
The water on Hoan Kiem Lake was still. I looked briefly for a large soft-shell turtle, which are said to live there. In fact, an overstuffed turtle in a room off the temple simply added to the over-the-top allure. This was my first temple visit in Vietnam, a visit I would remember as I wandered in and out of other temple courtyards throughout the next two weeks. I would pay an entrance fee at only a couple others; most would be free.
But at no other temple would I sit and savor this first morning of my solo venture to Vietnam, a country thousands of miles away from the comfort of my home.
I listened to the buzz of motorbikes speed by on the road beyond the bridge. Another woman walked up to the temple and lit half a dozen sticks of incense. A light drizzle began to fall from the overcast sky. I gathered my backpack, glanced at the temple one final time and began my walk back across the bridge.