Warmth and cleanliness… it’s been days since I’ve felt either -- until today. The north of Vietnam was unusually cold and damp, and staying at budget hostels certainly didn’t allow for me to avoid the chilly winds and filth so easily. I’m no high maintenance person; I don’t need luxury hotels and hot showers to get by. But when I do come across a hot shower I appreciate it so much more than ever before. Ah yes… today, I found incredibly satisfying lodging, and I feel good. I feel very good. There’s always a silver lining, and today it was the fact that after enduring the frigid cold came the beaming sun and heat. Patience is a virtue, and I respected the struggle in order to reap the rewards from the other side.
We always want the best of the best. I’m backpacking through Vietnam and commonly pass by a luxury hotel or restaurant that’s too expensive for my budget. Back in the rainy streets of Hanoi I peered into a fancy restaurant window to see a couple dining and drinking red wine. Oh, how I miss red wine. Over time I learn to look away from these things. I train my eyes not to fixate on the luxury that could be mine in some other scenario. I learn to find beauty in a simple hostel with a friendly, overworked hostess at the front desk. Or maybe when I’m staying in a room that doesn’t have a switch to turn off the lights, I learn to appreciate the Vietnamese staff lady who kindly teaches me that the light switch is behind the armoire (silly me, how could I not reach my arm back there).
But the beauty of the struggle is in the reward waiting at the end. It’s not that I feel I don’t need to make money and then enjoy these things, it’s that at this point in my life, this is how I will learn gratitude for when I one day have more. When I finally share that glass of red wine with a dear friend, let me tell you- I appreciate it so much no matter the label or price of the bottle.
Today, after a series of cheap hostels with firm beds and limited privacy in the north, came a surprising hotel room with space and unlimited hot water (and the room costs only $5 with breakfast included). So now I’m sitting in the lobby of the hotel here in Hue with a smile on my face. I feel elated just because I took a hot shower and have a window in my hotel room. In fact, the view has palm trees nearby (which aren’t even common in this part of Vietnam). The floors are made of hardwood and the walls are painted a nice hue of light yellow. The bathroom has a glass door to the shower (yes, the showerhead is separated from the toilet in this room- highly uncommon for Southeast Asia hostels) and the sink is made of some sort of stone!
One year ago I’d have been like you reading that last paragraph. I’d be thinking I was insane for finding beauty in such simple things. In fact I might have gone a step further and complained about a crack in the wall, or the fact that the paint job was slightly poor in some corners of the room, or the fact that there was no bath mat to dry my feet on. Hell, the TV isn’t even a flat screen (not that I watch it anyway). But I’ve changed after being on the road for so long. I can learn to love the beauty of the small things and view these imperfections neutrally and then move on. After all, the last room I was in didn’t even have a private bathroom, or 4 solid walls, or paint on the walls at all. How could I possibly not be thankful? The struggle resulted in these feelings of joy.
The Japanese have a term known as wabi-sabi that refers to the art of finding beauty in imperfection. It can refer to appreciating a crack in an old vase, some dust on a piece of art, or a wilting rose. It pays attention to the beauty found in something that at first glance might seem ugly or flawed. You could argue that the reason for paying attention to such flaws is to be aware that we ourselves are all flawed, and we’ll eventually all face the same fate. For now, to appreciate flaws, and in this case struggles, means that we can extract beauty from objects or moments that may otherwise go unnoticed, or those that are disdainfully hated.
This day of the surprise hotel room also coincides with my personal challenge of doing another 24-hour food fast. I decided I needed to take a break from food after mindlessly indulging in all the street foods this country has to offer. I was forgetting to appreciate the food and found myself in a cycle of repeating mindless behaviours. So I’ll certainly learn to be thankful once again at 7pm today when the 24 hours come to an end. This isn’t easy. I’m no expert at fasting, but I know that by lasting the 24 hours means I’m boosting my willpower and strengthening what I know to be possible of myself. It’s the same as staying in such simple, crumbling hostel rooms. Over time I learn to appreciate the things I have and will one day have. This concept applies to everything.
I’m backpacking southbound through Vietnam (a long and narrow and country) and naturally, it’s getting warmer. I try not to complain about the frigid cold (or the fact that the rooms here don’t have insulation to handle the cold weather) and remain grateful for the fact that I’m able to freely move to warmer weather as I please. When I get to the heat, I’ll embrace it. Just a week ago in the mountains of Sapa near the borders of China, the weather was absolutely cold. I was shivering and damp and wanted nothing more than heat. But I thought back to some writing I did on embracing the weather back when I was in the intense heat of a Balinese village. What good would it be to complain now about the cold when I so badly wanted cold weather back then?
Food, weather, accommodations- all of these things are entirely influenced by your state of mind. You can spend a lifetime dining in 5-star restaurants, sleeping in luxury hotels, and only flying to the perfect climates, but when you realize that it’s your state of mind that affects it all, then you see you don’t need these things to find happiness. Just learn to embrace the struggle. If it gets too cold, find some blankets and snuggle up with someone (recall practicing the Danish art of hygge). If you eat bad food, learn to love the next dish you eat ten times more. If you have to stay in an environment that makes you uncomfortable, then be thankful for the next beautiful place when you eventually step foot in it. The struggle can be your greatest enemy, or your best ally. Learn to pay attention to the struggle and work through it. I promise you, there is reward at the end.
What struggle can you endure to boost your willpower?
Edit: After writing this post I finished my 24-hour food fast. I went for dinner seeking out delicious pizza, and let me tell you- I don’t think I’ve ever loved a meal as much as that one. Yes, the food was very tasty, but it was my state of mind that made the meal and experience so memorable. Oh, and I got my glass of cheap red wine.