let’s be inappropriate

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about clothing choices for southeast Asia. Starting back in the planning stages of my trip, and ongoing throughout each country. I read numerous blogs on the subject and pondered the matter over the course of the several weeks as I was putting together my gear. Ultimately I decided to pack conservative clothing and purchase new items as needed upon arrival. I just didn’t feel comfortable wearing clothing that yes, may be acceptable in America, but is considered offensive in these conservative and highly religious countries.

My first few days after arriving I was miserable. I literally had a constant sheen of sweat over my entire body, my skin appeared diseased from the little bubbles of sweat that couldn’t escape, which in turn started a long process of my skin peeling. Heat rash is not a ideal thing, and I quickly invested in Prickly Heat, which smells funky but is so effective at keeping sensitive areas dry. So yeah, I wanted to ditch my t-shirts and trousers and even my flowy top in favor of camisoles and shorts. And as I started noticing the clothing of the women around me I thought everyone else is wearing tank tops and stuff! I was tempted to follow suit. Throughout my entire trip I have seen very few female tourists not decked out in tanks and mid-thigh shorts. One girl with whom I shared a taxi was wearing boy-short-underwear length shorts. You could literally see her butt cheeks, and she felt like this was okay. In Myanmar. Attractiveness (I guess?) and comfort over respect and sensitivity, right? Anyways, it’s definitely the standard. But then I started paying attention to the local women. In a few cities, Bangkok comes to mind, there are locals in tank tops or shorts, or even sheer tops. But by far in the majority of places you will never catch sight of a native women’s shoulders, and rarely above her knees. So this is ultimately what I aligned myself with.

Sure, I could get away with scantier clothing. No one would say anything to me except at temples where I’d need a shawl or something. But, I would argue that…no one would say anything to me. It is my belief that the locals are far more comfortable approaching a foreign woman who is modestly dressed, than they would be to approach a woman wearing clothing that isn’t acceptable in their culture. It makes sense to me. And I’ve also had conversations with random strangers where I get the impression they haven’t interacted before with many foreigners. To westerners I doubt whether I stand out much. But I’ve been paying close attention, and really, I do stand out hugely from the majority of women. I’m okay with this distinction. It requires a modicum of extra discomfort, but I think it more than pays off. I’m happy to refrain from offending the people, and I’m also very happy to have the small interactions I have with people here and there. I like keeping my opportunities as open as possible.

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superfluous on demand

Back in December when I was last in Florida, I wrote a check for $2,000 to my parents. This was the money I owed them from what they had spent on Varekai (my house). A few weeks later I received a call from my dad informing me that, after much thought, he had torn up my check. “And here’s why,” he said “I just don’t think a couple thousand dollars means as much to me as it does to you. So keep it and use it on something special.” Which, I was obviously so blown away by. I had very intentionally planned to build that house on every penny of my own money. Maybe it was a pride thing, I dunno, I didn’t want help; I wanted to do it myself. But, after some thought, I accepted my parents decision to contribute that $2,000 because, like my father, I think some things have more value than their price tag.

That money was destined to the black hole that is my bank account – destined to be saved and largely untouched for years (until the opportunity to purchase a plane ticket comes along). Despite the fact I was instructed to use it for something special. I guess, in my mind, life is pretty special. Just cooking dinner with my roommate is a special occasion to me, or going to a cafe with a book and having a cup of tea, or renting a movie for pizza movie night – it’s all part of the extraordinary web of this existence…so, black hole is where my money goes. To be used on small, insignificant, daily getting-bys.

However, this lifelong habit of anti-spending encountered a window of opportunity. Upon docking in Koh Tao, I found myself in the superlatively optimal situation to learn scuba diving. It cost so much more money than I would normally be willing to spend. I’m surprised, really, that I even entertained the idea. But I did. And I remembered that $2,000. Maybe I would take my father’s advice and do something I wouldn’t normally do. So I did. I spent $400 on getting my open water and subsequently my advanced open water certifications. I traded $400 for an incomparable and ultra amazing week of exploring the world contained within our earth’s enchanting ocean. It was amazing.

Later, in Vietnam, I was gripped with the desire to participate in a two day cave tour, also a spendy adventure. Realistically, it would complicate my itinerary and equally havoc my bank account. But the prospect of trekking through the jungle and camping in a cave were dancing through my mind. I thought again about that unexpected money in my possession. So for $300 I was able to explore the jungles of Vietnam and sleep in the magnificent Hang En cave, third largest cave in the world. Those two days were unequivocally among the best experiences of my life.

At this point I thought: what if I do something I normally wouldn’t in every country? I had also spent several nights in this exceptional tree hut bungalow on the calm white beach of Otres II in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. While its bill didn’t come close to the hundreds of dollars from the diving and caving, it was a luxury of an accomodation. A splurge, if you will. And there I spent some of the most relaxing, free of expectation and obligation, contemplative days. That travel brochure worthy tree hut provided the perfect backdrop for my full-being-reordering.

Wandering the night market of lovely Luang Prabang I encountered so many interesting foods I wanted to sample. I decided to have a night market feast and try all of the things that caught my attention. This one is funny, because while I ate everything my continually-shrinking-stomach could handle, I only spent about five bucks. Which, is still something I would never have done when I could’ve gotten by on $1-2 for a decent meal and a few new dishes.

Myanmar didn’t immediately have anything that stuck out to me as something that I would like to do, but was exorbitantly costly. It kind of came out of nowhere, the decision to have an upscale dinner. This whole trip (ahemmywholelife) I’ve favoured street food with the absolute belief that the fare was far more worth my time. But, why not actually test that theory? I found the least obscenely extravagant, but still upscale restaurant I could and had a fancy five course meal for $15. The whole experience was definitely a standout from the rest of my clearly budget trip. I was able to try a week’s worth of traditional Burmese dishes in one excellently constructed and attractively presented meal.

I didn’t use all $2,000 (more like $750ish). But I did get more than my typical money’s worth during this trip. I still hold that you can have a stellar, meaningful, life changing travel experience on the tightest of budgets. But I definitely concede that money will provide you some things that your thriftiness just can’t afford. I enjoy budget travel more, I suspect, than I would enjoy luxury travel. But it has been fantastic having these bonus adventures.

So, all of this just to say a really huge thank you to my ever generous parents. I had some of the coolest and most incredible experiences from that check you refused to cash. Thanks for always being a sponsor for my life, whether that comes in the form of money, time, moral support, manual labor, advice, encouragement, putting up with sprawling and never-ending projects, coping with having an unusually-minded and admittedly stress-inducing daughter…I appreciate it immensely. I’m grateful for you, and I’m grateful to you. And I’m so excited about the exact life I get to live, in part because of your steadfast support, even when you don’t agree with my decisions (i.e. dropping out of university, hitchhiking, moving to the complete opposite corner of the country…) I think so often it goes unacknowledged, but it absolutely doesn’t go unnoticed. Parents have a certain role to perform, but you guys carry it exceptionally well. I couldn’t imagine a better set of parents, and I wouldn’t want them if they existed. You guys are just right. I love you immensely.

Thank you. 

agoraphilia 

It’s 5:30 in the evening, just past the heat of day, and I am strolling down Chiang Mai’s Wua Lai road. A few flashbulbs of lightning and a few explosions of thunder politely preceded the current state of sprinkling rain. While I do enjoy a good walk in the rain, that is not my current purpose – I have expensive electronics in my pockets, some which can take a nose dive off a waterfall and survive, but others which, decidedly, cannot.

No, the reason I am out tonight is to peruse another of a diverse smattering of markets I’ve been to in these past months. I love markets. I love them. It doesn’t matter how many I’ve been to, I am always exuberant about the prospect of a new one. Some of them are unimpressive and don’t beg for a return, but mostly they are such a pleasant way to spend an evening. Or morning. Or afternoon. 

I like arriving while the sellers are still in the midst of setting things up. Men meticulously lining hundreds of tiny silver and gold statues just so. Women gently folding soft, beautiful pashminas. Young girls helping to lay out colorful and loudly patterned elephants, giraffes, and monkeys. Young artists displaying their thin canvases of extraordinary paintings, and eventually settling ever so casually to paint several more over the course of the evening as easily as if they were merely writing their name. Anyone working at a food stand will occasionally be seen chewing contentedly, no inhibitions about sampling their product in front of customers. Usually the market scene seems a very social event. Everyone chatting to their neighbor, or flat out abandoning their stall to go giggle over some recent happening with a friend. 

There is a lot of repetition and similarities with items across cities and countries. Soda and beer cans repurposed into planes and automobiles; bamboo iPod speakers; plush elephants which I swear are all the same; simplistic and vibrant paintings of monks; the never ending parade of elephant pants. But without fail there are always new and fascinating handiworks and clever inventions. I rarely buy anything other than food, but I like just seeing everything. And as for foods, I am becoming more and more of the mindset that if I have no idea what it is, I’ll have one, please. 

I love when the day goes dark and all of the stalls with their different lights glow, reflecting the billions of colors and shiny, dangling objects contained on the rows and rows of tarps. 

The noises are more pronounced, too, with the awakening of the night. The first thing you notice is the human factor: the approach and retreat of conversations in at least twenty languages; oohing and ahhing over trinkets and displays; a constant stream of bubbling laughter; the shuffling of feet; the whole spectrum of haggling, from quietly timid to loudly insistent, and usually in a broken and lilting English on either side; the beautiful and sad music played by mostly handicapped musicians. The sizzling oil of hundreds of cooking dishes; the scraping of woks; the whirring blades of overworked blenders liquifying mountains of fruit and ice (and sugar, let’s be honest). Chimes and bells and whistles performing their little sounds in the hopes of being taken home. The clinking of coins as they change hands. All of this is gently folded into the mix of preexisting city sounds: the armies of motorbikes; the gangs of tuk-tuks; the rapidly filling bars; the crowded plastic tables at the usual suspects of the street food scene; and ordinary people going about their usual lives. 

The aromas come layered in surprisingly distinct waves: strong soaps, usually made to resemble fruits in this part of the world; smoky meats accompanied by a fiery heat that reaches you just moments after the scent; pungent jackfruit prevailing over the other fruits at the numerous shake stalls, usually some rotting rubbish odors making an appearance here and there, sweet crepes and roti that tug temptingly at every sugar addicted cell in your being, heavy clouds of jasminey incense, spice saturated noodle stalls, human perspiration and perfume. Normally I’d find such a cacophony of scents overwhelming and offensive, but in this setting it somehow completes the atmosphere. 

I love that here, if nowhere else, people take the time to stop their motion and really look at things. That is so rare these days. It isn’t conducive to efficient and flowing walking patterns, but then markets aren’t for the hurried. It’s like a lively museum of things you can own for very little money, and where you are allowed to actually touch things and interact with your surroundings.
I always walk through at least twice. Once to take everything in, and again to actually make my carefully calculated purchases. A noodle dish here, a new or favorite sweet there, a tiny sample of juice from some fruit I’ve never heard of before…
Despite my propensity to be overwhelmed and overstimulated, I love the muchness of the market scene. It is a perfect immersion for my usually quiet self. And it remains one of my favorite ways to interact with a city.

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.