How I Broke Away from Personal Binds on a Philippine Independence Day

Introversion and shyness are not the same. Modern psychology made clear of that. And people understand that now.

Unfortunately, I am both introvert and shy.

Yeah, I can hear friends violently disagreeing right now. Me? Shy? Oh come on…

But they didn’t know how much I dread social events that sounds like “compulsory”. I also lost count how many metallic objects got wet (and rusted) by my sweaty palms every time I’m forced to talk in front of people. I may be very talkative in my blogs and social media posts, but it’s just because these online platforms are like the toilet for the crazy content in my mind. Friends don’t know how my tongue knots like a stalk from a cherry fruit every time I would be asked to talk to groups or in public.

The Philippine’s Independence Day, June 12, often stirs something inside me to do things that may represent breaking away from my personal binds. But usually, it’s just travelling to a place I had never been.

Last year was something special for me though. I had my first trip out of the country…

… a solo one…

… to Saigon, Vietnam…

… a place where a majority don’t speak English….

Isn’t that crazy?!

Independence Palace at Ho Chi Minh

Even Vietnam recognises Philippine Independence Day (at Saigon’s Independence Palace)

Breaking the Habit of Putting My Happiness in Other People’s Hands

I had always wanted to go out of the country, but I depended on other people so much for it to happen. Actually… just generally one person.

So trips ended up getting cancelled because my usual travel companion (for local trips) always had issues. And if he reasoned financial inadequacy, I ended up spending more money for him just to make the trip happen.

Though pursued trips were memorable and exciting destination-wise, they’re generally more of an emotional expense overall and it was a relationship founded on mistrust and betrayal.

So I had enough of the masochism. Months before the Independence Day of 2014, I booked a solo flight to Ho Chi Minh, still popularly known as Saigon, even if there’s no so-called Piso Fare promo. I realised I depended on other people too much just to fulfil my travel goals. I was too paralysed with the thoughts of travelling by myself especially the need to interact with strangers, exposing my social awkwardness one too many times.

But I realised that if I want to achieve my travel goals. i should will it. With a freaking expensive booked ticket, there was no holding back for me.

Breaking Out of the Comfort Zone

I actually don’t know why I chose Saigon, Vietnam, as my destination. Perhaps Saigon has already been in my mind since I was in high school. I knew there’s something about Asian history lessons that will soon revive a passion deep inside me in the future. Or perhaps it’s because I knew Saigon is open to tourists despite not using English much. Maybe I felt challenged learning Vietnamese and surprising the locals. I have a Vietnamese friend from online who helped me learn what Saigon is like.

To be safe, I booked an accommodation close to the city’s tourist district so just in case I have a hard time with the unfamiliar culture, I’ll just stick to where I feel comfortable. In short, I was craving for a cultural immersion while making sure that I come home to a comfortable atmosphere at the end of the day to avoid a culture shock.

A Supposedly Secret Trip

The whole trip was supposed to be a secret because I was uncertain of what the outcome would be for the trip. Will it be cancelled because of horror stories in the immigration process? Will I be denied boarding even know I was legitimate to travel? Will my social awkwardness even survive the streets of Saigon?

I didn’t tell my parents because I know that their conservative minds will make them say something negative like “it’s a dangerous place!” or “It’s expensive! Better use the money for more important things!” And I believe in the “gaba” that could befall on me when I do the opposite of what my parents say, whether they’re right or wrong. So, I didn’t want to give them the chance to comment. I was planning to just inform them that I would go on a weekend trip (hopefully with implications on domestic travel) and will be back on a Monday.

I didn’t tell my friends and colleagues either because… I simply don’t want them to be excited for me and I dread being in the spotlight. I also don’t want to be burdened by bringing home “pasalubong” unless of course I want to and I can afford them (haha!).

But the real reason is that… I didn’t want to be pitied when they would find out that my travel got cancelled or I was offloaded by the Immigration or for any other reasons. With all the expenses I had incurred and the time I prepared, I would definitely be pitied if the trip was cancelled. And I didn’t want that. It would still be being in the limelight, only in a negative way. Even if they wouldn’t talk about it, I know they would feel sad for me. And I don’t want to share any of my embarrassment to anyone, especially with close friends. Never.

But deep inside, I knew that I would be very proud of myself if this solo trip, and my first out-of-the-country travel, would be a success.

As the travel date drew near, the anxiety of keeping the trip a secret grew intense. I was having doubts if I’m doing the right thing. It was a crazy situation. Good thing I remembered that my friend Rhoda also had her first out-of-country trip, a solo one, in both Vietnam and Cambodia. So I asked her for inspiration. She gladly shared her stories and provided tips and gave words of encouragement to pursue even though I knew she’s an outgoing person who can brave the world by herself. And most importantly, she said something like:

“ang Saigon ay isang malaking Colon”
(Saigon is like a vast version of Colon, the downtown area of Cebu).

It was a big help, really, considering that I go in and out of Colon.

I took more inspiration from blogs, especially the one from another friend Dannea (and a fellow introvert) who travelled solo in Siargao (accidentally because her travel companion cancelled the trip due to a flu) and had a good time. One particular scenario that sparked my interest to travel solo was her story of how she hailed a random motorbike driver (and a burly one) to take her to a destination which she later found out that they’ll have to pass through deserted areas. Crazy. Haha. But I know it was a proud moment for her. (But she didn’t know I was taking notes of her stories until I went back home from Saigon and thanked her for the inspiration.)

Another person who possibly knew of my trip was my Vietnamese friend, Anh. He knew I wanted to visit Ho Chi Minh but didn’t know exactly when. He was my local source of information when it comes to the city, its people and language.

“The thieves here only snatch iPhones,” he said.

Whew, so I have nothing to be scared of, thanks to my phone from a local Philippine brand.

A day before the trip, I confessed to my parents where I would be going, for safety reasons. But it was more like me telling them, “I’m telling you this not because I want to ask permission, but because I just want you to know. And I don’t want to hear any negative comments.” I knew they were worried especially when they found out that I was going alone, but hey, I’m a big boy already. I’m more than 30 years old, though I may still be the youngest and the baby in the family, but I’m a big boy now. My mom was like “I’m the one worried for you.” But this was really something I have to do for myself.

Armed with Knowledge to Face the Fear of Uncertainty

The trip required careful planning because, I am both introvert and shy, remember? So I need to know how I could go through the city of Saigon without making a lot of fuzz and most of all, embarrassment. I have to be sure of what to do and where to go, and if possible, I have to do things stealthily like a ninja… I wish!

So I researched about the top destinations in Saigon when you only have three days. I noted them all — their locations, their opening and closing times, interesting spots to keep an eye on, etc. I researched all about them despite the fact that I know I may not see them all because of my low energy. But I wrote the information down in my cheap notebook. It’s just at least, when I’m lost or had my itinerary jumbled, I could just check my notes and make alternate plans.

“Oh, the Water Puppet Show is just a few miles away North of this park and I can still make it for their 7 PM show,” I told myself after aimlessly wandering in their huge park where martial arts students were doing their routine.

What shocked me most in my research is that Saigon may be considered as a “scam city” for many tourists. A lot of blogs and reviews online revealed that many tourists in Saigon were scammed by food street vendors, taxi drivers and cyclo or bike riders. A typical buko juice in its natural source costing around 225 Philippine pesos? A spicy beef noodle soup in a stall set-up at night on a sidewalk, costing around 445 Philippine pesos? Oh wait, that last one was my personal story. Hahaha.

Related: It Could Have Been My First Saigon Street Food Scam

Honestly, the Saigon scam stories scared me. Especially about taxi drivers who’ll overcharge tourists and use your luggage as hostage or cyclo drivers who’ll tour you around for a certain amount only for you to realise later on that the said amount was on a per hour basis. But it didn’t stop me. In fact, I was challenged to pursue the trip with the aim to ignore the hawkers and the drivers. I tried to devise ways how I could deal with them should I have no choice but to be with them. But yeah, I encountered some of them but I survived them.

Freedom from the Thoughts of Immigration Horror Stories

Years and months before my out-of-the-country trip, stories about cancelled flights due to Philippine immigration stories were viral throughout the web. The corruption of officials, the perception towards Pinoy budget travellers, the padrino system of Filipinos and other similar stories all had prevented me from going solo on an out-of-the-country trip in the past. My passport was still unstamped. Worse, one of the pages has a freaking stapled “Visa denied” note from the Korean embassy telling me that “I failed to show strong economic ties with the home nation,” whatever the heck that means.

I know I am legitimate to travel, but sometimes, you just get to meet crazy people along the way. Who knows? The thought of going solo and experiencing the immigration horror stories are really daunting.

But I already booked my flights and there’s no turning back. If I get offloaded, so be it. If it’s meant to be, it will be. But of course, I’m an introverted person so I have to avoid awkward situations as much as possible. So I discreetly brought with me formal documents like the photocopy of my vacation leave, ITR, certificate of employment, company IDs, hotel bookings, sample tour itinerary and many more. I was like a student.

I also asked the immigration stories of Rhoda and she told me it shouldn’t scare me. “Just prepare photos of yourself,” she said. What was that for? She said just in case you look different now from your passport photo. I don’t know if she was joking or what, but I did prepare some photos in my phone. (facepalm)

I also asked another friend, John, who was an OFW and was previously offloaded from his vacation to Singapore in between his employments. The officials suspected that John would use his holiday time to search for new employment to the Middle East. But John was really going on a vacation. Before my first out-of-the-country trip, he was kind enough to share his stories about the immigration process and what documents I could prepare.

At those times, the Philippine immigration officials were cautious about Filipinos going to Singapore as part of their anti-human-trafficking campaign. The country was the gateway to the Middle East where illegal Pinoy migrants are plenty. I was scared about my trip because although I would be on an airline-arranged transit in Singapore, misunderstandings could still arise. And I was right to think of that. My experience was that it took me quite a long time to exit the airport immigration process because the officer didn’t quite get it that I am just passing through Singapore to Saigon. In the end, she finally realised that my final destination would be Vietnam and I have a hotel and a quick tour booked there.

I finally exited the immigration process, but not before being asked the question I so much hate in my life:

“Is this a company-sponsored trip?”

I often squirmed when asked that because I couldn’t imagine any of my past and present employers (except the Japanese one) to sponsor such Asian trip.

“No. I saved for it,” I answered with a smile, but hiding my disgust.

Overall, it was quite an experience through the immigration process, and in the end, I realised that maybe, just maybe, the horror stories are exaggerations or perhaps a case-to-case basis. But honestly, I didn’t know the whole scope of the immigration process, so my heart is pounding hard and fast the whole trip until after I exited the immigration process in Vietnam and gained entry to the country.

“Weren’t you scared travelling alone in an unfamiliar country where most people don’t speak English?” a friend asked when I got home from the trip.

“Honestly, I was more scared with the airport immigration process than the fact that I was travelling solo there,” I replied.

Temporarily Breaking Away from Identity?

When you’re out of the country, you’re somehow out of your comfort zone especially if it’s a solo trip. I realised that with that scenario, you can actually be who you want to be. In a way, nobody knows who you really are and thus, it’s just like starting all over again from introducing yourself or explaining why you do the things you do. It’s like starting your identity with a clean slate. Perhaps what changed in me was that I suddenly became talkative with taxi drivers and in rare cases, with fellow tourists, talking about holidays, countries, pop culture and any topic that I didn’t realise I already knew.

“Isn’t this fine arts museum great? … I’m from the Philippines. You? Really, you like an artist from my country? Juan Luna? No? … Jericho? I don’t know Jericho in painting. Maybe he’s a sculpture or another field… Rosales? Jericho Rosales!? (very long pause) … Well, he’s a good actor… they say.”

Breaking Out from Ignorance and Narrowmindedness

I had been writing for a couple of years that one of the many benefits of travelling is that it expands a person’s view of the world. With my first ever out of the country trip, I realised how true it really was, especially when you’re travelling to a place where the culture is much different as yours.

The similarities and differences between my city and the one I’m visiting amazed me big time. It’s as if I somehow made sense of the obscure lessons I learned in Social Studies and Asian History way back in high school and college. You get to understand what a type of government structure can do to society or how a foreign invader or conqueror can shape the lifestyle, culture, traits and attitude of people. Words are not enough to express how amazed I am with all these realisations.

Breaking Away from Ranting about the Home Country

Yes, I rant about our country a lot, especially on the officials governing us. Who wouldn’t? When you’re working hard only to get 60% or less of your income all the time due to compulsory government taxes, and you hear stories about corruptions and evidences of how mediocre the public services are especially for the working class, who wouldn’t want to rant? When you’re in another country, somehow, you realised that your own country isn’t as bad as others at all. Well, not that Vietnam is more unfortunate than the Philippines. Well, maybe online in a very few ways.

There are many ways that Vietnam, or at least Saigon, is better than the Philippines. And I realised that instead of ranting, perhaps it’s better to suggest what our country can learn from Vietnam. I really don’t know how to begin it, but there’s a lot of things that I appreciate in Saigon: the use of solar-powered light posts in parks, the many free exercise machines in every park, the vast areas in the park where people can play casual sports, lots of trees and plants to breathe fresh air in the park in the middle of the city… uhm, I think I mentioned too many parks. Well, there’s also the discipline of the thousands of motorists who respect pedestrians despite the crazy Vietnamese traffic. Why can’t the Philippines have something like these?

But honestly, I did rant a lot and every day about how much I can have fast 600MB unlimited mobile internet for 1 month anywhere in Saigon for a prepaid load of less than the equivalent of 300 Philippine pesos. It was totally a big deal compared to they postpaid 340-Peso 2MB broadband internet I have back home from a company that says “consistent, fast, reliable” but is so slow that I end up having my phone battery drained long before my Facebook app gets refreshed.

Breaking Away from Not Fully Understanding One’s Self

The best part about solo travelling outside the country is that you get to know more about yourself. It’s cliché, yes. But it’s real. It’s as simple and as factual as that. You will understand more of who you really are and what your real interests are. You’ll understand how far you can walk, how long you can focus, what things truly spark your interest, how you can survive a big city, and other many sorts of things. It’s hard to explain really.

It’s better experienced than explained in words.

As for me, I realised I take things real slow. I don’t care if eating street foods is a must in Saigon or that a Vietnam holiday isn’t complete when Halong Bay isn’t visited. What matters to me most is that I take my time and intimately get to know the city, it’s locals and the sceneries. I love sitting in an outdoor cafe and watching the locals and tourists go by, the same thing I normally do back home.

What a Journey it Has Been

I don’t think my realisations about life, the world, societies, people and myself would be the same if I was not on a solo trip and if I was visiting a city where most people speak English (Saigon’s people are French, you know?).

I’m sure that if I was with a group, I would definitely feel lazy knowing that someone else is more knowledgeable of the trip. I’m just happy that I had the chance to go out of the country for the first time, and a solo one. It didn’t just gave me something to be proud of about myself, but also realisations that I could use to better myself.

Ethan with the tank at the Independence Palace of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

At the Independence Palace

As the trip ended, I am reminded of a part of the lyrics of The Journey by Leah Salonga (who formerly played the role of Kim in Miss Saigon) that goes…

“…what a journey it has been…”

Happy Philippine Independence Day, everyone!

… and Happy Saigon Trip Anniversary to myself! Hahaha.

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