“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone”. My friend Phát read this aloud to me as he pointed to the words tattooed in black on his arm. This is how Phát began the Vietnam Discovery Tour, and these words remained the echoing theme for the rest of the trip.
Before arriving in Vietnam, I only knew Phát Doàn as the Vietnam Discovery Tour guide. There was no face to this name, only the promise of someone who could knowledgeably lead me through my unknown expectations of a place I've never been. But Phát Doàn was not merely a tour guide. Phát, who everyone lovingly called Phatty, was at the very least our tour guide. What he proved to be, first and foremost, was our friend.
As his friend, we quickly learned that Phát is a connoisseur of local cuisine. Each day he'd lead us to hidden markets and sidewalks where stools, tables and freshly cooked BBQ or Pho seemed to suddenly appear. He schooled us in all the necessary ways to enjoy Vietnamese coffee - flavoured with dollops of yogurt, scoops of frozen coconut, or gobs of condensed milk. With plenty of warning and consistent enthusiasm, he pushed us past our comfort zones and into the Sa Pa restaurant where we gave tasting horse, and all of its unidentifiable organs, a try. Each day of the tour, there was no question if or when we would eat, but how Phát planned to fatten us up as we hurried to our next excursion. Phát was no tour guide. Phát was a bottomless pit.
Aside from being a master and lover of all food, Phát groomed himself to become a human Google. His conversations effortlessly flitted with facts about Vietnamese history and tradition as well as modern culture. Without hesitation, Phát could go from providing a monologue on the legends of an ancient temple or mountain formation to explaining how to efficiently maneuver bartering at a local market. In the next breath, he'd explain the colonization history of Hanoi all while chauffeuring us to the ATM, tossing band aids at me for me for my blistered feet and pointing out where to find the cheapest beer.
Part of Phát's tour guide excellence was a result of his natural comfort with the country and culture that were his own. He confidently led us through the crowded streets of Hanoi like a mother duck with a following of ducklings because Hanoi was his home. The other reason for his all-knowing persona was the fact that he was a self-proclaimed perfectionist in hospitality. He was our reference and resource for anything we needed on the tour, and he remained our most helpful friend during our time in Vietnam.
When he wasn't playing mother duck or planning our next meal, Phát was encouraging us to make the most of our time in Vietnam. To Phát, being a tour guide was clearly so much more than trip execution and itineraries, but creating a memorable experience that the group could take with us after the tour was over. Many of my first experiences in Vietnam happened simply because it's impossible to say no to Phát's optimism and encouragement. From tasting horse meat to hopping on the back of a water buffalo and jumping off a boat into Halong Bay, Phát was there holding our hands through it all (quite literally when it came time for boat jumping).
Now that the tour is over, I'm grateful for all of the memories and friendships that I've brought home with me from Vietnam. Most of all, I'm grateful for the lesson my friend Phát taught me and what I'll continue to carry with me every day - life begins at the end of your comfort zone. Or really, life begins when you hop on a water buffalo in the middle of a rice terrace; ride on the back of a motorbike down a twisting village road; or plunge into the glinting teal waters of a secluded bay while screaming into the splash. Whatever comes first.
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Amanda is an amateur traveler attempting to push her boundaries for adventure. She’s jumping feet-first into her first international experience with the Vietnam Discovery Tour. In her short-lived 23 years, her traveling opportunities have been tethered to the east coast of the United States. After growing up in a close-knit community in central New Jersey, she carved herself a home in between the rolling hills of East Tennessee. When she’s not kayaking or perusing antique stores, Amanda makes a living as a communications and marketing specialist focusing on science and education.
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