Working man’s Buddha

The street was the kind of dark you can’t find in America. But this was Ninh Binh, Vietnam, and the only thing to compete with the single tangerine street lamp were the blue strobe flickers of the hostel night-watchman’s anime. 4:00 in the morning is a misnomer. There’s nothing morning about it.

Vietnam tourist fart bus


Three of us had stepped off the rolling odor-cage of musty laundry and nocturnal emissions that they called the Tourist Overnight Sleeper Bus from Phong Nha to Hanoi. Lined with individual beds, my courtesy when boarding had secured me in the worst berth, crammed in the back corner on the shared surface with a young couple who eyed me nervously as I approached.

“Hello, my name is Tim and I’ll be the stranger spooning you for the next six hours.” A girl in a neighboring bunk thought it was funny but the couple just stared. We politely ignored each other as we careened through the honking Vietnamese night, until it was time for me to climb down and out alongside a tall French girl and a guy who looked like a caricature of a bar room brawler.


Once the bus rumbled on its way to Hanoi, the street was the closest to silence I’d heard in weeks, the monsoon that had flooded my last three stops was resting for a moment, and the air had the perfect amount of chill for my T-shirt and shorts. Beautiful.

Cell phones may be the downfall of our species but GPS helpfully informed me that the tourist bus drops the tourist people in the tourist zone, five miles from where actual Vietnamese people live. But on a night like that, with nothing open for hours yet, five miles sounded perfect.

Vietnam Ninh Binh temple

“My hotel is in the center. Looks like a couple hour’s walk, I’m going to go if anyone wants to come with me.”

“Quelle?” the mademoiselle asked. “Qu’est-ce que vous avez dit? That you weel walk to ze town, in ze dark? Seven kilometre? Ma non! I stay ‘ere!”

“Yeah okay, mind if I come with?” asked the brawler as he shrugged into his bag. So we walked into the asphalt void, his flip flops flip flapping and my belly full of the solid non-hunger you get when you haven’t slept enough. Local dogs barked half-heartedly from the darkness and the occasional taxi would slow to size us up before speeding on its way.

We were travelers traveling, so once we’d compared Vietnam to the neighboring countries and agreed that Donald Trump was a disgrace and crime against humanity, we told each other our most intimate secrets. As you do, given the immediate intimacy and optional anonymity of travelers.

Mine were obvious. My last relationship was still bleeding in me after half a year, and I said something about hoping this trip would help me understand what had happened and work on what had taken it off course. He gave me a long gauging look.

Vietnam Ninh Binh street

“I don’t know, man. I hear a lot of people talking about this, about ‘understanding what happened’ and all that. That feels so passive to me, you know? It’s just more thinking. Thought piled on thought. In my case, I had a wife, and I thought everything was going fine, then she left me for someone else. It sucked. But I know what happened. I understand why she did it. I learned that lesson pretty quick. I don’t need to go back and dwell on it or parse it out, I can just take what I learned and be a better person in the future.”

I felt a wash of relief. I knew exactly what he meant. All that endless introspection felt like a duty, like if I didn’t do it I was shirking my responsibility, dodging accountability, but it all felt like dwelling on dead things while life bled away in hours.

“Do you know what went wrong?” He asked. Of course I did. “Then just don’t do that again. Right? Do you really need to dwell on it, or do you already know the answer?”

Vietnam Ninh Binh icons.jpg

Again, still, of course I did. And that was enough. We kept walking, casually swapping stories, good times and bad, happiness that came and went. But he didn’t carry his sadness. “Happiness is an emotion, so it will pass like all the others. Expecting it to stay and be permanent is a good way to make sure it leaves. People act like being happy all the time is the goal. Trying to be happy all the time is a damn good way to make sure you’re miserable instead.”

And again, this was something I already knew, but had fallen into the trap of forgetting. This too shall pass, right? Open yourself to the present, but don’t take it so seriously. I know he had other gems, my working man’s buddha with tattoo sleeves, but what notes I took after our hours together were lost when that phone imploded. That’s okay. The reminder to not take it all so seriously, to appreciate without clinging, that’s enough. That makes me feel…happy.