Halfway between Hanoi and Halong Bay is a little Vietnamese haven called Yen Duc Village ("Yen" meaning peace, and "Duc" meaning virtue). Home to 5,000 people, the village weaves through rice fields, rivers, lush greenery, hand-built homes, and the most welcoming and loving people I've ever met. In my far-too-brief stay here, it was as if I traveled back in time and forward again, experiencing firsthand the most eye-opening lessons of humanity I've ever known.
After a short and luxurious stay aboard Indochina Junk's Dragon Legend Cruise exploring one of the world's most stunning natural wonders, known as Halong Bay, you can imagine how reluctant I felt going in when I discovered my next night would be spent alone in a local homestay with strangers, in a village no one's heard of, in a country that just decades earlier had been in one of the bloodiest wars with the place I call home.
Yet miracles happen when you least expect them... And how silly I was about to feel for just how mistaken I was...
That that "local homestay" was a charming home built by the hands of a loving husband to house his generously caring wife, Ms. Tâm, their three daughters and adorable grandchildren; that those "strangers" would welcome me with open arms and even more open hearts and make me feel like family; that that "unknown village" in that country that at one point in time regarded people like me as enemies, gave way to some of the most poetic landscapes I've ever seen, and accepted me as one of their own, saying, "The war belongs to the past. We know that now and in the future, we are all friends; and we do nothing but welcome you."
I received endless love like this from the locals, including some love advice from a 96-year-old Vietnamese woman. With soft gray hair tucked beneath a bamboo hat, she told me, above all, "to find a man with a good heart," and that "her only regret was not being able to go back in time and fix me up with one of her relatives." When I told a group of volunteers helping to rebuild the village's main temple that I wanted to be a writer, they said they hope I become famous like the authors they've read about, and that someday I might write a book about them. Others called me "beautiful" and "brave like Superwoman" for traveling on my own. And no matter how strong the language barrier, I could always communicate through smiles and the universal language of laughter. It's no wonder that with every encounter, I began to feel more and more at home.
I spent the days biking around the village in a bamboo hat of my own, with my kindhearted guide (and unofficial translator) by my side, winding through dirt roads and abundant rice paddies, stopping to chat with the locals and getting a chance to learn their daily handicrafts. I was one of the natives by day; and by night, I was part of the family. Ms. Tâm prepared the most delicious and copious Vietnamese meal I've ever had as we all gathered on a bamboo mat atop their front steps around bowls filled to the brim with fresh spring rolls, pumpkin soup, grilled fish, rice from their own harvest, and steamed vegetables from their own garden. I was in heaven. After dinner we all sat around and made Vietnamese "donuts," consisting of fresh cane sugar and "green beans" rolled in rice dough and dipped in sesame seeds. By the time the donuts were ready a couple of their neighbors had come to join Ms. Tâm's husband for an after-dinner smoke, tea, and chess game. One of their neighbors brought over his flute and played me a song of his own calling it "a gift to my soul" and saying that he hoped even after I return to America that I look back on that night and remember that moment with them. I told him I'd never forget it.
This made it all the more heartbreaking to picture people like them suffering during the war, especially at the hands of the country I come from. I know war exists for reasons I'll never understand, but I couldn't help but think that if the people that wanted to fight saw how the other side lived, sat down with their families and watched how they interacted with one another -- the smiles, the laughter, and the pure love that encircled them like oxygen -- then maybe, just maybe, things would be different. In a perfect world, I suppose...
It appears once again, that it all comes down to perspective, putting yourself directly in the place of another. And if there's one thing I've learned throughout my travels, and one thing that so many people are missing, it's that. All those superfluous and superficial things I used to regard as "problems" and "necessities" seem a whole lot different after experiencing the highs and lows of how these people live, and what they've been through. Perhaps that's why they live their lives with the very joy and lightness that they do; why their eyes seem to glow just a little bit brighter; why their smiles seem to stretch just a little bit farther; why their laughter seems to sound just a little bit louder. They know just how blessed they are. They've lived through the dark days when hope was dim, the times of ration cards and sacrificing their crops, saying goodbye to loved ones with the fear of never seeing them again, and watching their beautiful country burned and destroyed by invaders. Yet in spite of it all, they got through it; and all they can really do now is be grateful, and continue working for a better tomorrow. And the day after that; and the day after that; and the day after that...
While on the other hand, our side of the world views things like a dead phone battery, running out of toilet paper, and One Direction losing a band member as the end of the world. Some people just don't get it. Then again, maybe that's all they really know, and may ever know; and that might just be the most heartbreaking thing of all.
After experiencing things from the other side, my only wish is that one day people start to wake up; that they put down the beauty magazines and switch off the E! Network; that they power down to power up, and go out into the world (even their own town) and see it for what it really is, see the people for who they really are: beautiful. I hope they explore a place they didn't just pin on Pinterest as some far off dream, but a place they're ready to dive into head first. I hope they experience a world of language barriers and getting lost, cold showers and bug bites, missing home but being open to exploring a temporary one with full abandon. I hope they see firsthand what it's like to be vulnerable, to step outside of their comfort zone and have things not go their way, to have their patience tried and their morals questioned, and come out the other side with a newfound confidence and sense of self.
Even if just for a short while, I wish these things more than anything. Then, who knows, maybe they'll go right back to where they left things, beauty magazine earmarked and celebrity gossip shows recorded and awaiting their return. Or maybe they won't. Whatever the case, I guarantee a light will switch on, slowly and gradually or perhaps all at once. And no matter how small, something in them will change.
They'll see more beauty in the little things, more enjoyment in simplicity; they'll be more present in their day-to-day, say thank you and mean it, and they'll treat people better. And sure, they might still make mistakes, jump to conclusions and judgments, complain, and grow impatient at times -- hell, we all will -- but this I promise... something will click, our eyes will be opened and our hearts will begin to yearn for something more. And no matter what happens next, one thing is certain: we'll never be the same again.
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