On the Importance of Friendship While Traveling

Solo travel can get pretty lonely (and yes, I see the irony in that statement). For me, that’s probably the most difficult part of traveling. Eating bizarre foods (like blood pudding or fried snail), not knowing where I’ll be sleeping the next night, and trying to live on $10 a day aren’t that bad. In fact, I treat these all as little adventures. What gets to me, however, is the yearning for companionship and the loneliness that follows.


When traveling, you meet unbelievably interesting people and make a lot of friends. But those relationships don’t last too long since everyone has their own agenda. Thus, I find it hard to truly connect with others, which why I’m so thankful to have found a great friend and companion over the past two months of living in Vietnam. Everyone, meet Altyn.

Altynbek Tleuov is an adventurous guy from the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan. Almaty can literally be translated to “father of apples” as that region is thought to be the ancestral home of the apple. Yes, you read that right. That delicious McIntosh apple you picked from the orchard  back in September probably has its origins in Altyn’s hometown. And don't worry, I already thanked him for that.

He and I met while teaching English near Hanoi, and we had an instant connection. We bonded over our mutual thirst for adventure, our love of soccer and Vietnamese milk tea, and being fellow AIESECers. He is one of the most easy-going people I know who also likes to challenge his, and also my, comfort zone. We push each other in the direction of adventure, which has led to some unforgettable memories.


Last weekend we went to Cat Ba Island, which is usually a tourist-packed beachside getaway with lots of beautiful nature. But since it’s the off-season in winter, it’s much less popular. When we first arrived Saturday afternoon, we could see why. It gets dark early, the water isn’t too warm, and the air temperature was around 50 degrees.


Cat Ba Island in the winter; beautiful, but cold

Barring this, we still decided to make the most of our vacation and started out by crashing a Vietnamese wedding reception. As we walked by this massive outdoor tent booming karaoke music at 8pm, a dancing man vehemently waved us in. I hesitated, as I often do. But Altyn didn’t miss a beat, and dragged me inside. Boy, am I happy he did. Everybody inside was very welcoming, and Altyn and I danced ourselves silly. Which is another reason I like Altyn, he is very much my equal when it comes to unabashedly making a fool of myself on the dance floor.


After about an hour, we politely excused ourselves and continued our quest for adventure. We came to a group of Vietnamese youth in the street playing Jianzi, a traditional Chinese sport that is similar to hacky sack. This time we didn’t hesitate before asking to play. They welcomed us with open arms, and we had a blast!


Afterwards, we shared a few beers with friends and headed back into the night around 11pm. We found a floating restaurant run by a Vietnamese family, and ordered a beer each. Attached to their restaurant was a little boat they must have used to catch their fish; Altyn said, “Hey, Tom. How cool would it be to drink the beers on this boat?” The thought wouldn’t have even crossed my mind if I was alone, which is why I appreciated Altyn’s company. So, we asked the lady taking care of us, and she happily assented.

The next part of our journey saw us sneaking onto a private hotel beach at midnight; this time it was my turn to lead the adventure. As I had spotted some rocky cliffs and, being the monkey that I am, suggested we climb up. We treacherously scrambled across a rocky cliff jutting out above the dark ocean, and ended on a picturesque outcropping that few people had likely found before. We spent the next two hours swapping stories, listening to music, and bonding in silence as we listened to the calming sound of the sea.


The next day, we snuck back onto that private beach, which was even more picturesque in the daytime. Altyn and I then challenged each other to swim in the ocean. Yes, it was cold outside, but we couldn’t leave an island without taking advantage of the best thing islands have to offer!


Now, anyone who knows me knows that my body doesn’t handle cold water very well. I once got so cold at a lake in Maine that my thumb glued itself to my palm, and I couldn’t move it until I’d warmed the nerves of my hand indoors. So you can imagine how difficult it was for me to strip down to my boxers, and go charging into the ocean in 50-degree weather. But Altyn’s mutual adventurousness spurred me on, and we ended up enjoyably swimming in the ocean for half an hour.

Yep, that's me

These are memories I never would have created by myself, which is why I stress the importance of finding a good travel buddy. Someone who you get along well with, and someone who challenges you to be the best person you can be. I certainly found that in my Kazakh friend, and am sad to say goodbye to him for now. Thank you for everything, Altyn. I look forward to our next adventure together hiking through the mountains near Almaty eating 2,000 year old apples.

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