if only, Adrien Brody

Finally I reached the winding mountain roads I had been expecting throughout most of this trip. Karst enveloped landscape swimming in fog. Something about the houses here struck me as much more attractive than elsewhere. It took me several hours to determine just what it was. Finally I realized it was the lack of signage and busyness. Everywhere, everywhere in this part of the world buildings are covered in beer banners (Beer Lao, Angkor, Tiger, Singha, Chang – depending on which country you are in), person-sized signs for ice cream, phone provider ads, Nescafé umbrellas. So much busyness everywhere, but these small roadside towns were completely devoid of it all. I am all for it. It’s so much more pleasant to behold the quietness of these villages.The minibus I caught from Vientiane to Luang Pranang is the nicest, newest, cleanest transportation I’ve taken yet. The driver seemed very safe to me, despite the quality of the road, despite the fact that we were driving on the edge of cliffs, and despite the fact that we passed one major wreck and one semi that had simply tipped over in a ditch into the side of the mountain.

Luang Prabang had an immediately noticeable nicer feel to it than Vientiane. It seemed smaller, and less official. I liked it already. My guesthouse very proudly offered free bananas, and I had my share. The building was old and wooden. The stairs to get to my room were so steep it almost seemed more like a ladder than a staircase. I liked my room immensely, too (despite the fact the walls were pink stained and unlovable), and that also took me a while to grasp the reasoning. Because it was my first [non-CS] room that was mine. It was as cheap as anywhere I’d seen, but this was a single room instead of a dorm. I would be taking full advantage of this fact.   I think I skipped dinner the night I arrived, but breakfast was the first order of business when I awoke the next day. I sought out a local noodle soup, despite the morning being already uncomfortably warm. The main difference I noted between this soup and the countless others I have tried was the abundance of thinly sliced, ultra crispy fried garlic pieces. Which were awesome. I walked along the Mekong for a long length of the town, particularly appreciating the [french influenced] architecture and the way the buildings here fit together very snugly. It boasts a very different, quaint aesthetic to all the other cities I’ve visited so far. During the afternoon I retreated to my room and splayed myself under the fan. This particular day I bought a small tub of taro ice cream and consumed the whole thing. Not a whole lot went down during the hours nearing 100°. But I was very excited for the evening. In Vientiane all I had wanted was to watch a film. Unfortunately for me, there is not a single cinema there. Not one. How excited I was to learn, then, about L’etranger – a bookshop in Luang Prabang that shows a movie every evening. I showed up early and ordered the local mak toum (bale fruit?) tea. The film that evening was The Cobbler, which sounded really charming, until you learned that Adam Sandler was in it (only one girl knew this fact, and when she shared it we all had the same reaction). Nothing against him, it just wasn’t what I was expecting based on the description. Anyways, the act of sitting in that beautiful space with a pot of tea, watching a film was exactly as magical as I anticipated. Afterwards I popped over to the night market, but it was already in the process of shutting down. Still, I came across these tiny banana leaf baskets stacked delicately with little coconut cakes. They aren’t exactly cake: they are fried and spongy on the outside, but the inside is a gooey, custardy molten lava of creamy coconut. They are perfection.   Soo…I might have even had them again for breakfast the next day at the morning market. This market had the weirdest selection of things I’ve yet seen. There were live frogs in a giant basket, frickin thigh sized lizards both whole and chopped up (I’ve seen a lot of dead animals around, but these chopped up lizards win the gross out factor for me), seemingly innocent baskets which actually held small dead pigs, and some other unusual meats and critters that I can no longer recall. There were no other tourists at this early hour. I did some shopping for the next day’s journey up the Mekong. 

For my heat induced indoor period that day I happily occupied myself with some sketching and painting. I almost indulged in another film at L’etranger, but decided instead to tackle the night market early. There were a lot of foods I wanted to try and I opted to have a night market feast. Despite my best intentions, I could only fit about $4.50 worth of food into my stomach. Oh well, it was a very exciting experience, and I’m certainly not going to complain about being satiated for less than five bucks. Between my various courses of foods I wandered back and forth along the long strip of tents filled with amazing handiwork. The skill of people here is so impressive. I think I probably spent like four hours lost in all of the colors and patterns and delicious smells there. This has been my favorite market so far.

It was only just lightening when I started out the next morning. I walked once more to the morning market to grab fresh baguettes for sandwiches…and one more helping of coconut cakes. I bartered with a few different tuk-tuk drivers before finally agreeing on a price that was favorable to both of us. And so I bid adieu to lovely Luang Prabang.

destiny and its many faces

I’ve been unusually stressed about getting to Laos from Vietnam. I’m not sure why it seems so much more complicated than any of the trips thus far. I guess because I’ve been unable to find very clear information on the Internet. Or maybe because I’m traveling a long distance across countries, and perhaps I should’ve broken the journey into smaller sections. I dunno. Regardless, I vacillated between plans for a week.

At the end of my trek to Hang En I was dropped of in town. The ATM was finally working, and I withdrew more money than I thought I needed, just to not be in the same situation, caught without cash. I assessed my options. I knew I was only 50km from the border, and it just seemed so silly to drive east when I wanted to go west. So I strolled into Easy Tiger and asked how much they thought it would cost to get a xe ôm to take me to the border. The guy working there this time was immensely more friendly and helpful than the first day I had gone there. He recommended taking the local bus to Dong Hoi at 5 the next morning, and catching the bus to the border from there. This seemed like the best option I had heard, and I asked if perchance they had a room. They did! So I checked in and he proceeded immediately to check me out since I was leaving so early in the morning. I had a meal there since I actually had money now, and I spent most of the evening catching up on writing.

I awoke at 4:30 and went to wait for the bus. As I was waiting I started reading the sign about the local bus. First, the bus I wanted wasn’t until 5:30. Second, there was another at 6:00 and another at 7:10. Did I really need to take the earliest bus? To the iPhone! I researched my options, and it looked like buses headed from Dong Hoi to the border every hour in the morning. And the bus from there to Vientiane wasn’t until the evening. Sweet! More sleep and free breakfast it was. I went back up to bed and came back down at the more reasonable hour of 6:30. I had my tea, fried egg, and baguette, and then went once again to wait for my bus. The guy next to me, who I assumed worked at Easy Tiger, struck up a conversation. We talked all the way onto the bus. He informed me that my travel plans were pretty unlikely to work out. He usually arranges trips for people to Vientiane, and I would probably need to leave from Dong Ha, where coincidentally he was going as well. He made a phone call for me and assured me there was a bus to Vientiane leaving Dong Ha at 12:30. So I would tag along with him and he’d deposit me at my bus. We proceeded to converse for the ninety minute ride to Dong Hoi. Come to find not only does he work at Easy Tiger, but he’s the co-owner! As well as being in charge of the local eco-tours and the wild animal refuge center. His name is Hai, and he is a really cool individual. We both agreed we were happy our fallen through plans had inexplicably changed the course of our respective days. He invited me to have breakfast in Dong Hoi and proceeded to pay for it, as the Vietnamese do. I went with him while he did some shopping for his businesses and then we jumped on the bus to Dong Ha. Which he also paid for. It was another couple of hours before we arrived. He took me to his friend the travel agent, and his friend quickly put me on the back of a xe ôm. A far too quick thank you to my new friend Hai and I was speeding off towards the bus that was waiting for me to leave. This is the point where the magical enchanting morning changes. Should’ve stayed in Vietnam. I was tempted.

I am currently on the most questionable bus I’ve ever taken. It’s a sleeper bus like the one I took between Hanoi and Phong Nha. But three quarters of the back is packed full of stuff. Lots of boxes, quite a few blankets, some random luggage. As far as I can tell there are eight other passengers, all from Vietnam or Laos, and fourish guys operating the bus. Like on all sleeper buses you are required to take your shoes off and place them in a plastic bag. In fact, they wouldn’t let me back until I had tied the bag. But despite the strictness concerning footwear, the crew is smoking as if it’s not an unusual thing. We’ve been watching this show that seems to be a competition of sorts of various couples trying to sing duets the most romantically. The crew is enthralled by it and have had heated discussions about various couples. I find this hilarious. These grungy guys all into the ooiest gooiest lovey singing you could imagine. Anyways, all of this seems a bit off to me. I’ve had a lot of thoughts running through my head. Like is this an entirely legal situation going on here? and if so, if this bus gets stopped, am I getting busted along with everyone else? and am I less likely to get through the border with these guys? or is this what a sex trafficking ring is like? Is this the time I’ve finally trusted too far?

The actual border crossing was where it really hit though. We were motioned to get out and the driver made a stamping sign with his hand. I followed two Vietnamese guys and we walked about a kilometer down a sun heated highway. I very decisively took my backpack with me; no way was I getting separated from my stuff. No way was I leaving it behind on this sketch bus. I wondered why we had to walk, and whether or not I would ever see the bus again. I had another predicament as well: I had almost exactly enough money for my Laos visa, but it was divided between USD and VND. Which just doesn’t work when you are entering a country. I had tried to research whether there was an ATM at the border, but found no answer. So I cringed when the Vietnamese officials stamped my exit. Point of no return and all. What happens if you are stuck at a border without cash to go either direction? I honestly didn’t want to know the answer. The two Vietnamese guys went to a separate immigration counter and I lost sight of them while I busied myself applying for my visa.

The man working at the visa on arrival desk was one of the nicest government officials I’ve ever encountered, which bolstered me a bit. There was, in fact, an ATM (hear that Internet? There is an ATM at the Lao Bao border.) As with Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam getting into Laos was really simple and non-troublesome. However, once I had my passport complete with a shiny new visa in hand (as well as my first Laotian phrase: ‘thank you’ stamped into my brain), my life was not so simple. My two Vietnamese comrades were gone. Like, definitely nowhere in the vicinity, and there was no sign of the bus. I hadn’t been told what to do, and I had no idea what to do. My heart sank. Was this my first Asian scam? It had been a really obvious one, if so, and they must have though I was so naive. I had heard so many stories of people being conned or cheated, but have managed to avoid any trouble so far. I wondered how long I should wait before finding alternative transportation to Vientiane. The man from the visa on arrival booth approached me and asked about my situation. He pointed me towards a seat and told me to wait there for my bus. Several minutes later he found me again and brought me to another of the passengers who had been on my bus. That gem of a border control man must have asked around for me. He told me to stick with this guy, because he was worried I would miss my bus. I breathed a little easier. At least I wasn’t the only one waiting here. And surely this local had more of a clue of what was happening than me? Also, if I was stranded here, at least this amazingly kind border control man would help me get somewhere. But, sure enough, our gaudy and overly packed bus appeared finally. I settled in [gratefully] for some more cheesy romance duets.

The road once we crossed into Laos was horrible. I’ve heard/read about ‘poor road quality’ and assumed that people were just being overly dramatic, but no. I just hadn’t experienced the extent of poor road quality yet. You literally could’ve ridden a bicycle faster. The large bus had to snake back and forth across the road to avoid potholes, and this with oncoming traffic doing the same. No wonder this seemingly short distance on the map was supposed to take so long.

The bus stopped for dinner and toilets at one of the usual roadside stops. The crew invited me to sit with them for dinner, which I did, hesitatingly. The locals at the restaurant appeared to never have seen a foreigner. They interacted very excitedly with my bus crew and even pulled out their iPads. Pictures I’m used to by now, but one woman walked around taking video as if to say ‘see, this is my establishment, and look what just walked in!‘ I smiled politely, but was relieved to get back on the bus. The spotlight is not my domain. I was also proposed to by one of the men on the bus, which, I’m not sure if I’ve talked about yet, but this is not unusual. I’ve had numerous proposals and declarations of love. Sometimes by the actual person, and often by an older individual for a younger man. They’ll point at the young, single male and pointedly say ‘I love you’, which is to say ‘this man loves you’. The man will smile sheepishly and I’ll perform the least awkward response I can muster, which is still deathly awkward. How are you supposed to respond to that? Anyways, if you are really desperate for a husband, Vietnam awaits you. Dress modestly and take transportation with the locals.

The rest of the journey was blessedly uneventful. Podcasts to drown out the duets and sleep before arriving around 5am at the soil of Vientiane. Thank God.

As a postscript, despite the sketchiness of the situation, I don’t regret it. And I don’t think I was conned. I had arrived in Dong Ha too late for the last bus to Vientiane, so I assume this was some sort of non-passenger bus headed that way that just took on what few passengers it could carry. In hindsight, this makes sense with a comment Hai had made to me about me maybe being lucky and still catching a bus. I suspect that if anyone else on the bus spoke English they could’ve easily explained the situation to me, but I just didn’t have any way of understanding what was happening. While I did have some concerns, if I had really felt at risk, I would’ve refused to board or gotten off. I’m not too shy for that. If your intuition kicks in, you pay attention. And that’s that. My trip to Laos was without question the strangest border crossing I’ve encountered. But I’m here, and none the worse for wear. 

the stunning exit

The journey began with a drive through fog dusted mountains. Mountains covered in very northern greenery, except for the clusters of banana trees scattered about. The wisps of fog reminded me of my present home in the pacific northwest, but this would be a very different adventure from anything I’ve encountered back home.  There were sixteen of us, plus crew. Phung led the way, and Bamboo took on the role of caboose. At first we descended through unextraordinary woods, but when the trail flattened out, we entered a world I’ve never known. The jungles of central Vietnam – of Phong Nha, to be precise – are a landscape worthy of exploration. We had a ten kilometer trek ahead of us. Plenty of time to get immersed in the scenery. I had been slightly concerned that this expedition would be slightly beyond my skill level, but it turns out I had no cause to worry. The group consisted mostly of people in their early thirties or late twenties, there were two older older folks, and I was definitely the youngest. We were naturally split into three groups based on our stamina. I was surprised to find myself in the first group. I suspect I have more hiking experience than some of the others who don’t necessarily live in a hiking dreamworld. But even if it had been very difficult, I would’ve been quite effectively swept along by the flood of wonder that engulfed me for the duration of our journey.   It was raining almost from the beginning. Somewhere between the Washington mist and the Florida summer downpour. A proper rain, anyways. And I couldn’t have been more thrilled about it. What good is a jungle trek without a minor deluge? It kept us cool, at least. We also had dozens of river crossings. Some only ankle deep, but others with the water reaching all the way to my thighs. This, too, felt a very necessary part of the experience. Technically there was actually only one river. I asked Phung how many times we had crossed it and his answer was twenty-six, though he’d never actually counted. We had been warned extensively about leaches, and I was wary of them. Just before leaving I had read a story about an Irish girl who had come back from Southeast Asia and had a leach living in her nose for over a month. Not on my list of experiences to seek out. But, after finding the first one on my trousers, I wasn’t bothered. I’d find several more throughout the journey (none on my skin thankfully), and they just aren’t such a big deal. Leaches were an unwelcome specimen, but the dozens of butterflies busily occupying the air around us at any given moment were certainly a cause for awe. The butterflies here are primarily black, with just brushstrokes of brilliant blue or teal, sometimes a stark white. Every once in awhile a huge white butterfly with bits of orange like a ginger cat. 

Surrounding our mud filled jungle path were the same tall mountains we had driven past, still wearing their soft fog like a scarf. Sometimes we walked through a maze of tall grasses, sometimes along the yellow-orange riverbed, at times through wet, fern filled forests complete with twisting vines, and other times in open space with views of all of the above around us. For the majority of our trekking I walked directly behind Phung. I’ve found this really bizarre phenomenon where people on tours are afraid to walk very closely behind the leader. So I tend to bridge that gap. I like it too, because it means a lot of interaction with the tour guide. Phung is a twenty-eight year old local with a degree in English. His name means ‘direction’, which I thought to be very appropriate for a man who leads people through the jungle for a living. Names in Vietnam are chosen for their meaning, so when he asked the meaning of mine I chuckled. At least it’s interesting, if not full of hope for my future and character on my parents part. Rae is a Hebrew word meaning ewe, which is a female sheep. Which isn’t especially entertaining until you learn that Bock is the German word for a male goat. I explained that my parents probably just liked how it sounded. He found it humorous anyways and commenced calling me ‘sheep’.   We stopped for lunch about halfway to our destination in a minority village consisting of thirty-two people. Our team of porters, about eight local men of various ages, was busily chopping vegetables for our baguette sandwiches and laying out a spread of food on a tarp. We were dining under the roof of the village chief. In addition to filling our stomachs we were given a tour of the village and told about how these people live. Mind you, we’re at least an hour and a half into the jungle. There is no possibility of getting a vehicle here, and they live without power. They seem to have a simple life, and they are very relaxed about the groups of foreigners coming into their homes.     We set off again and reached our destination on schedule. Hang En translates as Swallow Cave, and it is aptly named. It is the third largest cave in the world, and it is home to hundreds, thousands, or millions (you count!) of swallows. Despite its large scale, it promised to be a much more intimate experience than other, smaller caves in the area. 

Butterflies filled the entrance like a veil. Just adding to the surreal sci-finess of this experience. We passed through them and did one final leach check before pressing into the darkness. We schlepped through more water, scrambled over large boulders, and passed over thick white piles of dust that clung to our wet shoes.  The sight of our camp caught me by surprise. It was…amazing. A tiny, temporary town spread on the shore of a cave stretching one hundred meters into the air. It was more magnificent than any cathedral or castle my eyes have ever seen. We had our own turquoise pool, all those swallows overhead, and the unspeakable massiveness of this carved out space. And it was ours for the night. No other tour groups, no multitudes, nobody selling kitschy objects, no fake lights and planned speeches. Just an intimate group sharing an evening in one of the coolest campgrounds you’ll find on this earth.   After choosing our tents and learning about the composting toilets (been there, done that) we were free to do what we pleased. Mostly this involved taking a trillion pictures. Some of us scaled the back of the cave for a different view than we had coming in. Surprisingly I was the only one who took advantage of our private, perfectly temperate swimming pool. How many times in your life do you have the opportunity to swim in a cave? We had already been soaked by the rain, and there was a fire where our dinner was being artfully prepared. It smelled like camping and also like delicious potential and it was perfect for drying off.     If I had been impressed by lunch, dinner was a gourmet feast. There were over ten different dishes and all of them were superb. And they were all prepared in a cave. Yes, mark me impressed. There was plenty of rice wine to go around, and though I found it hard to swallow, I had just enough to join in the enthusiastic một hai ba, yo! that echoed throughout the cave. Full and happy we sprawled out and enjoyed each other’s company. Sleep came easily and I slept fully. I woke over an hour before any of the other trekkers and just sat silently taking in my still unbelievable surroundings.

Breakfast was spring rolls and crepes with banana, mango, Asian pear, and chocolate sauce, or lemon and sugar. Freaking crepes made in a cave. Inconceivable. I was amazed by these porters. They carried all of our food, sleeping gear, and other miscellaneous supplies in these giant improvised rice sack backpacks through the jungle. And then they have the audacity to be amazing cooks as well. They mostly didn’t speak English beyond ‘hello’ and ‘good morning’, which made me sad because they all seemed so cool. I wished I could speak Vietnamese so I could join in their comradery. Regardless, I think I fell in love with them a little bit. And with our tour guides as well.   After breakfast we explored other parts of the cave. We saw the final, and most beautiful, entrance. On its right side was a light mist of a waterfall. Not enough to make sound, but just enough to catch the sunbeams. The butterflies gathered in a thick cloud here, too. They seem to be the fantastical guardians of Hang En. On the ground there were dozens of partial eggshells as well as some fallen nests, and nearby a patch of stalagmite reaching up from the earth. On the way back to camp Phung reached for a handful of water and tossed it at the rocks to our left. Out of the rocks appeared the white forms of fossils. So much intricacy. This whole experience was just one of the most mind blowingly incredible few days. We wrapped up our time in the cave and headed back to our respective itineraries. The trek back through the jungle was no less breathtaking. More than once Phuong glanced back and caught me grinning. He commented on it, questioningly. And quite simply I just have a hard time comprehending the beauty of this world we get to inhabit. It’s so insanely wonder causing and gorgeous. I am always so humbled by my interactions with this kaleidoscope of scenery.       The final hour back to the road was explained to us much like the leaches: a less than pleasant challenge we would be facing. However, it really wasn’t too difficult. Not even as difficult as some of the hikes I’ve done in Washington. Despite this, we all cheered a little as one-by-one we reached the top and were greeted with cold beverages. 

This life is so, so incredible.  

only for morning glories

I’ve been avoiding sleeper buses since the trip from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville. I was fortunate then, to share my window box of a bed with someone I sort of knew. Now I’m alone again and the range of people I could potentially have to share that space with is endless. I’d rather take my train seat, thank you very much. However, my options for getting from Hanoi to Phong Nha were none too delightful. The sleeper bus made the most sense, and so I reluctantly booked my ticket. Upon seeing my bus, however, I felt a huge surge of relief. There were three rows of double stacked single seats that laid all the way back! No bed box sharing with odorous creepy disease infested weirdos! I enjoyed myself thoroughly as I listened to my first two podcasts. Then I tried to sleep. Hmm. Well, apart from the fact that it felt like we were traveling on a parade float propelled by a fleet of pogo sticks, the lighting was slightly…bothersome. So, the windows are lined with these bright red and blue rope lights. Then the driver decided to switch on these equally bright orange lights lining the ceiling on the other side of the seat. And just as I was thinking about how silly it was to have all of these bright lights on a sleeper bus, he switched on these orange and blue lights stretching down the middle of the ceiling! Seriously? It looked like the police had decided to raid a Gators game. Where was my delightful train journey? Also, as a note, the sleeper bu seats are just long enough for my 5’7-and-change self to fit mostly comfortably. It depends. If your 5’7ness comes from your legs, as mine does, then it’s just barely too short. But if your 5’7ness comes from your torso or your abnormally long neck for instance, you’ll be grand. Anyone taller, I am so sorry. You are going to have a less than pleasant experience. Good luck and Godspeed.I did end up sleeping decently. We arrived in drizzling Phong Nha at the dreary hour of 5am. I fled the bus and hastily made my way to Easy Tiger, the hostel where I was planning on staying. They didn’t accept reservations for only one night, so I had to show up and hope they had a bed available. Check in didn’t start until 6, and the power went out minutes after I arrived. So this is how it was going to be. The power flickered back infrequently for a few hours, but it was well past seven when it actually stuck. There were four guys in front of me who already had a reservation, which seemed fine. I was first in line for any free beds. Or, I would have been if some other guy didn’t rudely push his way in front of me. Him and his girlfriend claimed the only two remaining beds, and I was out of luck. The guy working there was unapologetic and unhelpful and I became rather unimpressed with the establishment in general. So, defeated I decided to try my luck across the street. My luck, as it goes, was quite favorable just then. The hotel owner was in the process of showing two very blonde, clearly Scandinavian girls from my bus into a room. They were surprised to see me, as they thought I had gotten a room at Easy Tiger. Without hesitation they invited me to share their room and I gratefully accepted. I realized the next day that we never exchanged names. They were off to an all day tour of caves that day and were set to leave early, early the following morning. 

I spent my day wandering through the small village of Phong Nha. There was a beautiful river, very green mountains  and rice paddies, countless small children eager to say hello when I passed by, and houses and some restaurants. I was happy to also see an atm because somehow I had ended  up here with less money than expected. However, that atm wouldn’t be working for the next several days. Which meant that I didn’t have enough money to both eat and buy a bus ticket (nowhere accepts credit cards) out of there. I would have only two meals in Phong Nha due to my lack of cash.   I should say that I did stay at Easy Tiger after my cave tour, and had a thoroughly different experience with a much friendlier employee. The only bad part this time was getting locked in the bathroom for half an hour, until a roommate fortunately appeared and let me out. I had been wondering going in why you would put a lock on the outside of a bathroom door (I’m also still confused about the lightswitch outside of bathroom doors thing – do these people not have siblings?), and now I wonder even more. Also, why would you lock a bathroom door from the outside when you can hear the shower? I’m chalking this up to idiocy rather than cruelty. I had been taking a [much needed] shower [after my two day trek], so I had my toiletry bag with me. I was trying to Macgyver my way through that door (after my attempts at banging and shouting had failed). I think I was about a minute away from freeing myself with a hair pin when my releaser arrived. I was half-tempted to stay in and see if I could get it, but I was pretty sick of being in there. So I counted my blessings and moved on with my life.  

should we watch just one sunset?

I was worried my experience at Halong Bay would be rather unsatisfactory. Overcrowded and overdone. And the experience from the start was proving just that. Our minivan from Hanoi had decidedly defective aircon (as it seems to go). At first we weren’t permitted to open the windows, but finally we convinced them to shut off the aircon and let fresh air in. The rest of the drive was lovely. I listened to a podcast  that my friend back in Olympia just started. It made me think of home, and it made the time go by so much faster than the previous hours of road or rail passing by.Upon reaching our boat at Halong Bay I began to realize this was going to be a very regimented trip. There were so many rules, and everything seemed to be happening in a hurry! But out in the sea I could see the dark silhouettes against the sky which bring so many people to this area. I had booked a two day one night tour. I’m usually not too into tours. For one it just doesn’t occur to me, and for another I prefer to have more freedom and control than any tour I’ve ever experienced offers. Anyways. After lunch on the boat we were taken through the famous cave. It was cool, though I would’ve preferred a more natural looking lighting to the disco colors that were displayed.       After we ditched the one day participants, those of us staying on the boat were assigned our rooms. I would be sharing my cabin with a Brazilian named Rafael. Upon walking into our room I heard an ‘oh shit!’ And as I followed, I saw why. One bed, oh joy. Rafael went and sorted things and returned with a key to a new room (with two beds!)       Next we set anchor and had some time for swimming and kayaking. Now, when I read about this tour I read about kayaking into caves and general exploration of the area. We were given an hour. So, caves were sadly out. Still, the sky was readying for sunset and I was sitting in a kayak surrounded by these spectacular small mountains stretching up from the sea. I can’t think of many better ways to spend an evening. I had seen some gorgeous pictures of this place, but not one of them does it justice. I can’t describe just how incredible it is to be in the midst of these two thousand karsts.     Most of us chose to hang out on the top deck as sunset lingered in the sky. Dinner was had, and then partying commenced, but I sought out solitude. Something about the ocean makes me completely antisocial. I just have no desire to interact with people when the sea is present. Perhaps that is why selkies are my favorite mythical being – because they have this longing for the sea that is…more urgent than their human connections.  After dinner I sat on the top deck and did some stargazing. Amazingly I was the only one. I could hear the telltale một hai ba yo! of shots happening below me. Their loss. The karsts stood black against the purplish sky, and since we were at sea, the stars were quite visible. When the party moved upstairs, I moved to the front of the boat where the crew were fishing with nets and crude fishing poles. I wrote quietly and did my best to ignore the loud music on all of the boats, including our own. Finally, I discovered just outside the window of my cabin, which was just big enough for me to slip through, there was a ledge large enough to sit on. I spent my final hours before sleep here, soaking in the sea, hidden from sight.   Sunrise was as gorgeous as sunset. I have yet to lose my surprise at just how vibrantly orange-red the sun becomes at sunrise and sunset here. It amazes me how distinctly different the sky can be in different parts of the world. We lingered at sea for awhile before finally heading back to shore and ultimately back to Hanoi.  All in all, this trip has been worthwhile. There was a point where my attitude changed from annoyance to appreciation. Probably right about when I jumped off the top deck into the water. And definitely at sunset. I don’t like the strictness, and that I can’t do all the things I’d like to do, but it’s really been quite nice. And it’s also not as frustrating as other super touristy destinations, because there are only so many people on your boat. So it’s contained. I have decided exactly what I want to do when I come back. Which is not take a boat tour. If possible I want to rent or buy a kayak and take it out to the islands myself. Accommodation on Cat Ba island can be found for as little as $2, or perhaps even stealth camping on my own private karst? Anyways, I’m going to look into it. This experience definitely reaffirmed my beliefs about tours being generally inferior to doing things on my own.    

chameleon by proxy?

My fourteen hour train from Da Nang to Hanoi was the nicest journey yet. I watched more beautiful scenery pass, listened to a few podcasts, talked for hours to a man whose English was no better than my Vietnamese, and slept until we arrived in Hanoi at 5:30am. My couchsurfing host welcomed me into her home just as she was leaving to teach at university. I went back to sleep and then ventured out for breakfast. I decided on pho. My first day in Hanoi was pretty uneventful (which I don’t consider a bad thing). I had actually planned on bypassing Hanoi in favor of a smaller village, but then decided to get my visa for Myanmar there. However, upon arrival, I decided to instead get it in Laos, as the process seemed quicker and easier. Soo, there I was.    Dung is kind of a perfect host, and a wonderful human being. I’m glad I accidentally failed to skip this city, because meeting her and staying in her house has been such a pleasure. I think that if you are in the care of a Vietnamese person, you are in very good care. Dung has provided me with so much food (very insistently sometimes! To which I didn’t object), so many recommendations about both Hanoi as well as some of my upcoming destinations, and a lot of knowledge about random little things in general. Dung is an English teacher – both at university and at home. But I think she is a teacher to her core. She is very thoughtful about things and has a lot to share. She was busy teaching classes for long days during my stay, but still managed to find a few excellent tour guides for me. The first two I met while talking with some of her students during their class. She liked giving them the opportunity to put their English to practice with a native English speaker, and I was happy to oblige. Anyways, she asked for volunteers, and two of the guys agreed and we scheduled a ‘tour of Hanoi/English session’ for Sunday.   On Saturday Dung was having a dinner party with some of her ex-students. I was invited, and I happily accepted. The food was a so good. One of the women lives in Australia and she had brought beef back with her! So we had a soup with a very gingery broth. In spurts, fresh mushrooms, greens, tofu, beef, and eventually noodles were added. There was a burner in the middle of the table, and we all continually served ourselves tiny bowls of soup. It was so delicious and so filling. Probably because I ate a few pounds of soup. The group was a fun group as well. They spoke English to me (she taught them well!), but I equally enjoyed listening to them chatter amongst themselves in Vietnamese. I think the people here are very expressive, and this group had a high level of playfulness. It was fun to take it all in over my steaming bowls of soup, which I was constantly reminded to refill. I spent a lot of time talking with one woman in particular. Her name is Thao. She expressed interest in visiting Washington and we discussed that for awhile – how long you need in order to experience the pacific northwest. And then she invited me to her home later that evening.

Before that though, I had another sit in on a class of four eleven to thirteen year old girls. We talked about boys and animals and geography and ghosts. I know I’ve said it before, but I’m seriously so amazed by the language skills of people here. You think they only speak Vietnamese, but then they can carry a conversation on any subject!Thao picked me up at six and we went straight to her house for dinner. I met her parents who live with her, her husband, and her two sons. The meal was a diverse mixture of different meats and different vegetables. I got to try a lot of different dishes and they were all good. We spent some time with her younger son and his two friends as they played games to improve their English. Then it was off to the night market. Which turned into a nighttime motorbike tour of Hanoi. A superb way to see the city, as it turns out. I got to see a lot of famous landmarks and hear the stories behind them. I spent the night in a spare room in Thao’s house, and in the morning we went to a huge park for a stroll. I love the parks here. You can see elderly people wiggling around to stay fit, aerobics, yoga, dance classes. All sorts of active people if you get there at the right time. After looping around a few times we went for a breakfast of mixed seafood soup, which Thao insisted on paying for. These people are so generous! I’ve come to understand that you are never allowed to pay for anything! We got back a little late for my daytime tour of Hanoi with Dung’s current students.  

Quân and Sống were my guides. I felt a little disheveled compared to their well dressed state, but I didn’t have time to address the issue. Instead I donned the spare helmet that was offered and hopped on the back of Quân’s motorbike. We went first to the old quarter. A section of town I walked to every single day I was in Hanoi, but had yet to really enjoy. We popped in and out of shops and had the unhealthiest assortment of foods you could probably compile, but they were all uniquely Vietnamese and they were exceptional. There was a shop of what seemed to be candied fruits (and vegetables? I’m pretty sure I tried some candied beets). We had doughnuts from a street vendor. Doughnuts here are filled with a thick, creamy fruit paste. Or at least most of the ones I’ve tried have been. I think I’ve detected passion fruit and maybe jackfruit or even durian. Due to the heat we were forced to stop for ice cream. It was the kind on a stick and it was an icy lemon on top with a creamy mint on the bottom. And finally, my favorite, we had this sweet fruit soup. It had watermelon, jackfruit, longan, dragon fruit, thick slabs of coconut, papaya, avocado, cantaloupe, mango, and little green balls of jellies. This is all comes cut up in a bowl with crushed ice on the side, and over it is poured coconut milk, and you know how in the US we cut down [perceived] unhealthy ingredients to make dishes healthier? My mom does this with alfredo sauce, substituting evaporated milk for heavy cream. I have a recipe for carrot zucchini muffin/cupcakes where I substitute apple sauce for oil. Well in Vietnam they cut down their coconut milk with sweetened condensed milk. Because it’s delicious. It was the most refreshing possible thing at that moment, and I’m sad (yet again) that I don’t have access to tropical fruits to recreate it.  So after our sugary food adventures we went back to Dung’s, defeated by the heat. There we sat in the classroom for a few hours and chatted. I asked about geoducks, because I had read that Washington exports them to Vietnam, and indeed, they are apparently really popular in certain areas! Weird. Dung prepared lunch for us before we headed back out. Next on the itinerary was the Temple of Literature, the oldest university in Hanoi. It was gorgeous. And it was filled with nearly graduated students doing photo shoots. The women all dressed in traditional, white ao dai. Following we did the One Pillar Pagoda. Which is basically the tiny house of pagodas. And nearby is the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, so we walked there too. It was a very historically, architecturally, culturally, and culinarily educational day for me! Quân and Sống were excellent tour guides and, surprise, they insisted on paying for almost all of the day’s treats. I managed only to foot the bill for the ice cream. Oh, Vietnam how you have spoiled me.     

fire on Sundays

Da Nang. This name has no more significance to me than any other city in Vietnam. Nonetheless, it will remain one of my favorite cities from this trip. Not because of old world charm and glowing lanterns like its neighbor Hoi An, and not because of unexpected and unprecedented experiences like Koh Tao’s scuba diving.

No, I have fallen in love with Da Nang because of its residents. I am couchsurfing once again. I’ve always known I love couchsurfing, but this trip has solidified just how strongly my appreciation for a city correlates with my proximity to its people. If I interact with few people, I have a small amount of appreciation for a place. If I have interactions here and there, I’ll have a moderate affinity. And if I am immersed in a home and a friendship with the people who call a place their home, then my heart is captured irrevocably. Be it boring and lackluster, be it dirty and unkempt, be it riddled with flaws and complications, it will settle warmly and fondly into my heart for eternity. Coastal Da Nang is none of these things, and so we had already started off our relationship with more than a glimmer of promise. But things really progressed when I took my refuge in the dry, simple space of Matt’s home. This would be my home too, for the next several days. And Da Nang would parade, proudly before me, it’s finest selection of residents and visitors. Matt is an American living here for six months now, teaching English. My days with him would produce an array of conversation topics as diverse as the teas in a tea shop. Philosophical concepts and histories, mental health prevalence and awareness, animal obsession, unrepeatably dark humor. His work doesn’t take up a huge amount of his time, so we found opportunities to fight the waves of the ocean, not five minutes walk from his house. To spend evenings cuddling puppies and interacting with the varied clientel at Minsk. To go out for tea, and naturally to sample the neighborhood fare. Matt excitedly introduced me to mì quảng, the local breakfast noodle soup. Also to his usual haunts for phở and bánh mì, both of which I am happy to sample endless amounts of. Another prominent character from my stay in Da Nang is Huyen. I have a few years existence on Huyen, but I find her to be an inspiring woman. She seems to contain both sides of a multitude of spectrums – silly and serious, tough and tender, wise and light hearted. She goes about things in a very decided manner, and if she feels something strongly, she shares it. One day Huyen took Matt and me to a vegetarian restaurant and ordered for us a proper smorgasbord of dishes. Following this, she handed me a helmet and drove me to a mountaintop temple. We spent some hours soaking in the atmosphere before retiring to the oceanside for tea. This is Huyen. Generous and thoughtful, practical and capable.      Adam and Jodie are visitors of Da Nang like me. Matt invited them over one evening with the promise of pesto. Only, access to ingredients here isn’t as simple as dropping by your local Trader Joe’s. Huyen took us to a market where we collected ingredients that might possibly mingle into something like pesto. It would have an Asian flair. The distinctive flat, purpley holy basil would lend a different flavor than the parachute shaped leaves we know in the US. Sesame seeds would stand in as the nutty flavor. Finally the Laughing Cow cheese found here at every bánh mì stand on every corner would try to hold its own against Parmesan. Only garlic and olive oil would be unimprovised. It turned out pretty impressive, really.

We would join forces with Adam and Jodie again, as well as their mutual friend and her two young daughters whom I befriended. Our dance card for the evening featured the Sunwheel – Da Nang’s skyline-shaping ferris wheel. This in conjunction with the most surprisingly awesome street meal of I-have-no-idea-what-deliciousness. I spent some time on my own as well. One evening I took myself on a tour of Da Nang’s notable bridges. I also finally had an opportunity to do my laundry for the first time. I’ve washed single items here and there in sinks and showers, but all of my clothes needed a good strong washing. I had expected Matt to point me to the nearest laundromat, but instead he hooked me up with a bucket and detergent. Which was fine by me. I sniffed my drying clothing over and over again in disbelief at just how clean they smelled.     Yes, Da Nang satiated my desire for human connection beyond what I would have asked. And something that I especially love about the people here is that – native or transplant – they love their city. That’s an attractive quality in a place. It’s one of the reasons I’m not especially fond of Florida – a lot of people seem to live there because it’s better than their snowy alternatives. Not because they are bewitched by it entirely. Anyways, more than once I caught myself pondering my hypothetical life in Da Nang. There is something so special about Vietnam, and I want to taste more of it. Who knows, it could happen. Matt was telling me that apparently foreigners can now buy land there with no yearly property tax. Have house, will travel?