Why Trekking in Northern Vietnam Brought Me to Tears

Trekking in Sapa, Vietnam

We are lucky to be here.

This isn’t a particularly unique or profound thought. We’re all aware of this fact. Nonetheless, I personally think that we need to seriously think about and remember this a bit more often than we do.

When we’re complaining about the new shoes we just bought that are blistering our feet, it’s a great time to remember. Or when we burn our tongues on obviously-way-too-hot soup or when we have to wait more than an entire minute on line for a coffee.

Or when we’ve lost someone close.

Or when we’ve been entirely broken down, felt lower than dirt, and questioned our entire beings through and through, and had no love left to give.

Those times, too.

We’re lucky to be here.

But, sometimes in life, we simply get wrapped up in our day-to-day lives and day-to-day problems that we forget.

When I was just 25 years old (two years ago now), my mom suddenly passed away. The hollowness of losing her seemed to grow deeper and darker, consuming my usual bubbly and optimistic self and devouring whatever positive outlook I had left. Life had thrown me a curveball straight to the heart and left me emotionally paralyzed. The person I was closest with was now gone.

In all honesty, I still struggle with her death. I’ll never talk to her again. Never cook with her again. Never drink an entire bottle of wine with her again. Never watch sappy movies with her again. She won’t be at my future wedding. Never hold her grandchildren. Never tell me again that she loves me— and I can never tell her that I love her, too.

Losing a parent is a horrendous thing, especially when both parties are younger than they should be.

Fortunately for me, I was able to pick myself up and push on. I saw that there was no other option than to do just that, so I did.

A little over a year later, while still licking my emotional wounds, I managed to get kicked down in a totally new way: a guy I thought loved me for five years no longer did and hadn’t for a very, very long time.

On top of me grappling at the fact that my mother was dead, I now had to deal with major and sudden love and self-esteem issues… alone… and while also living in freakin’ China.

For several months, I kept all of this nonsense bottled up.

Fast-forward to me going to Vietnam about ten months later. Granted, I’d been to Vietnam before and am a full-time traveler (here’s some more on that history), but had never been there on my own.

Although I’d backpacked with my ex through the country years prior, we’d skipped the one destination I personally wanted to go to the most because “we” were too tired: Sa Pa.

And finally— fucking finally— three long years later, I threw my middle finger up to the heavens, put one foot in front of the other, and trekked in Sa Pa alone.

…Well, in a group of other travelers with a professional guide. But, still, with a bunch of strangers! By myself!

During the first twenty minutes, I walked along with my group, conversing with some of them along the way, smiling and laughing as per usual.

Trekking in Sapa, Vietnam

And then the mud came— and lots of it. My tattered and completely-flat-on-the-bottom Adidas running sneakers did not stand a chance against this mud. And, within the first ten minutes of mud, I slipped and my butt landed right in the mud.

And again fifteen minutes later.

My shoes slipped and skid everywhere while climbing down and around mountains and rice paddies. I needed help from my guide nearly every, single step of the way.

The sloshing and squishing sounds from my once-black-now-brown shoes made in that mud are forever engrained in my memory.

Please take note of the mud spot on my booty

Please take note of the mud spot on my booty

All while flopping around in the mud like a god damn hog, I was coated in a nice layer of slimy sweat. Yes, Vietnam is hot as hell in August. Who would’ve guessed? And I was even lucky enough to walk through a few streams, soaking and pruning my exhausted feet.

My lovely muddy and useless sneakers

My lovely muddy and useless sneakers

It wasn’t until three hours in that I was by myself. My guide was 500 meters away. The people in my group were far ahead of her and no one else was around me. I’d finally managed to get to level ground, catch my breath, and walk along the rocky “main” road. All of my distractions were gone. And I looked.

Towering, jagged mountains drenched in the brightest green kissed the milky clouds above them. Each mountain was covered in cascading rice paddies, all of which were meticulously laid out, every stalk simultaneously waving in the wind, making each mountain come to life. Lush trees and small, humble homes that housed the hardworking local farmers spotted the landscape amongst the rice paddies. The Sun alit the scene before me, almost knowingly presenting me and only me with this stunning gift of a view.

The pebbles below my feet crunched, then silenced. My jaw dropped— and I do mean literally here. I walked to the edge of the cliff I was near and stared at the scene before me.

I breathed in and out, absorbing the air, the scenery, the wind, the sunlight, the life— all of it into my soul. And then it came to me:

You’re lucky to be here, Marilyn.

Sapa, Vietnam

I reached up and grasped my mom’s necklace— the one she wore every day and the one I now wear every day—and cried.

How fragile life is and how lucky I am to have it. How fortunate I am to have moments like these, realizations like these, issues like these.

And in that very moment on that cliff, I felt that fortune, that admiration for life. I was in Sa Pa, Vietnam: alive, breathing, struggling, trying, succeeding, failing, hurting, healing, moving. I was amongst Earth’s grandeur. Right in the middle of it. I was and am just as much a part of this Earth and of life as those rice paddies. Just as much as every, single grain of rice growing within them. Just as much as their roots in the mud supporting their stalks.

Earth and life both throw struggles at me and all of us, whether they be the size of a grain of rice or an immovable mountain. It’s how we choose to tackle them that matters. Whether we stay down in the mud or brush ourselves off, then get back up.

In that precise moment, everything I had been tackling for the past couple of years became the things that ultimately came together and pushed me there. Right there. Right in the hypnotic rice paddies of Sa Pa.

And no, this musing isn’t some sort of cry for help or attention. That’s not the aim of this heart-spilling. This is me reminding anyone I can that life can be simultaneously ugly and beautiful.

But if you’re here, you’re breathing, you’re thriving, you’re growing— embrace it and be thankful for it.

Be thankful for the beautiful moments, but be even more grateful for the ugly, murky, and painful moments because they are what leads you to the pristine, Sa Pa-like times.

So, in summation, get out there and find your Sa Pa. Feel those emotions. Embrace your struggles. Live your one damn life— one muddy, sweaty, messy struggle at a time. And always carry gratefulness in your heart.

Trekking in Sapa, Vietnam

Would you trek through Sa Pa? Has any landscape ever struck you as deeply as Sa Pa had struck me?

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Why I cried Trekking in Sa Pa, Vietnam