This blog will serve as but a prelude to a much longer and more detailed story of the best two weeks (and change) of my life.
Time is a funny thing. No matter how perfect a moment is, no matter how much you want to pick up a feeling and hold onto it forever, time marches indifferently forward. For the past 17 days, my best friend Cailin O’Brien has been with me in Vietnam, and each moment we traveled across this country was so beautifully real and amazing. She left this morning.
Cailin and I have been through a lot over the years. At many of the lowest points in my life, I could turn to her and know that she would be there for me, no matter what. I hope she thinks the same of me. Deep and genuine friendship is what gives life it’s meaning. Sharing not just experiences but thoughts, memories, and yourself with another person is incredible. I have made friends in Vietnam, but my friendship with Cailin has been forged over two decades and strengthened particularly over the last five years by the chaotic storm of life. She’s like a sister to me. To have her in Vietnam, in this distant foreign land which I have flung myself into for a year with remarkable little forethought in retrospect, brought me comfort beyond words.
As I said in the blog before my parents come, just the presence of a familiar face is enough to make Vietnam amazing. Cailin and I could’ve sat in my room and played cards for two weeks, and it would still have been two of the best weeks of this yearlong journey abroad. Luckily, that is not what we did. The magical and aggressive and exciting journey we did take brought us to 10 different towns / cities / communes over sixteen amazing days. What follows is but a brief synopsis of the incredible journey which I was so lucky to share with my best friend.
Cailin landed in Hanoi the morning of June 1st, arriving to my house around 11am. Fighting jet lag, we managed to get some food, hang out on my roof, go on the ferris wheel, whack some balls at the driving range, and enjoy a fantastic tapas dinner. I could tell Cailin was groggy, naturally so for being 10 hours from your original timezone after 20 hours of flying. She still champed through the first day, and even though it was largely just us hanging out it was one of my favorite days of the trip.
The in-depth details of our trip will be included in the next blog, as it will take me a while to organize my thoughts and reflections on such an amazing two weeks and change.
In brief, we started on Cat Ba, the largest island just south of Halong Bay, where we saw spectacular views, peaceful sunsets, met new friends, and explored endless caves. From there we went to Ninh Binh, a personal favorite spot of mine in Vietnam for more climbing to spectacular views, exploring caves, and an amazing sunset. After a 12 hour overnight train ride, we found ourselves in Hue, just south of the DMZ during the American War, exploring abandoned waterparks and ancient royal cities, and meeting locals whether they be rice farmers or college students.
The next day had it all. Up early, we took motorbikes south, stopping at a sublime beach for some coconuts before scaling the Hai Va Pass, the Vietnamese version of the PCH. Cailin found it to be on par with the Californian one, I believe. We drove through Danang and ended up in Hoi An, the ancient city of lanterns. We got an unbelievable diner on a roof with a side of Vietnamese lessons, walked along the river, saw the best break dancers I’ve ever seen. A perfect day, all in all.
The next morning we took a cooking class and had a rave on a coconut boat (more details to come on this in a later blog). After driving out into the countryside to witness another majestic Vietnamese sunset (and barely avoiding a huge rainstorm), we hopped in a cab and made the 45 minute trip north back to Danang. After finding out the big ferris wheel there was far more expensive than the one in Hanoi, we ended up getting a quaint dinner and walking along the riverbank for hours. Danang has several spectacular bridges, from one that looks like a Dragon to one that is more colorful than a firework display. The riverbank promenade had many amazing marble statues on it as well.
Under threat of afternoon rain, we arose very early in Danang and made our way to “Monkey Mountain”, which although did not have as many monkeys as you might think, had wonderful views overlooking the third largest city in Vietnam. Having not eaten anything before and with the rain looking like it might stay away, we found a resort which let us eat breakfast on their private beach without being guests. Deciding it would be a great spot to post up as long as the rain stayed away, we quickly went and checked out of our Danang hotel before returning to the resort and renting a kayak. Some bullshit went down with the kayak paddle (later blog), but it was still a great hour spent paddling around a beautiful bay with a massive mountain peninsula to the left and the city of Danang to the right. Visiting a forty meter tall Buddhist statue rounded out the day very well.
The second night train we took had been sold out of beds by the time I got around to buying tickets, so a sleepless night was spent on the upright seated train between Danang and Nha Trang. Upon arriving in Nha Trang, I was very grumpy (for having had 3 hours of sleep) and acting it. However, after breakfast I calmed down, and Cailin and I rented a motorbike and went 40 minutes up the highway to some waterfalls she had researched. They were more springs than waterfalls, but still breathtaking and sweaty and magical and ours to share. Whereas in the US a place like this (could it even exist there) would be overrun by day trippers, we were some of the only people at this amazing formation. After several hours, we made our way back to Nha Trang, but not before stopping by some amazing pagodas. After showering and freshening up, we went to our first “ball out” dinner atop Nha Trang’s Skylight Bar. The views were incredible, 360 degrees of ocean on one side and city on the other, with mountains in the distance behind the city and islands fading into the darkness off the coast. The food was sublime. For the first time in my life I can say I am very glad I didn’t get the chicken nuggets and french fries. Mr. Minion was running around the restaurant. Perfect evening.
The next morning we took our second long motorbike ride up into the mountains of Dalat. A spectacular sweeping drive which reminded me of the roads in the far north, we climbed 1500 meters from Nha Trang at sea level to Dalat, the honeymoon city of Vietnam way up in the mountains. The temperature fell so drastically I started the trip sweating through my t-shirt and finished it shivering in my sweatshirt. The weather was so good to us the whole trip that basically the only rain we faced was when we chased the clouds all the way up to the mountain peaks, and they begrudgingly sprinkled on us. Dalat was an amazing city as well, full of flowers and Vietnamese pizza and life. While there, Cailin and I had a long chat about the difficulties I’ve faced living so far from all my lifelong friends at home and the challenges of making new friends in a new place. I cannot put into words how comforting it was to have my best friend with me in Vietnam, listening to my troubles and genuinely caring about them, about me, and offering solutions. I also got a sick Captain America shield fidget spinner.
Monday, June 11th was perhaps the most exciting day on the trip. I for sure thought I was gonna have a heart attack. After a calm morning of visiting more waterfalls, a silk factory, and a weasel coffee farm (don’t ask about the last thing), Cailin and I geared up and headed into the forest to go canyoning down the cascading Dalat falls. The first one was 18 meters. I thought I was gonna throw up or faint or fall. Luckily, I slowly walked myself down the cliff face, refusing to take the time to pose for a picture or look in any direction but at my hand clenched tightly to the rope. The next waterfalls, though no cakewalk, were easier than the first, especially after the adrenaline had worn off. The seven and eleven meter cliff jumps were my favorite part of the day. Cailin, though originally hesitant to jump off the high one (as there was a false ledge beneath it), built up the confidence to hurl herself off the cliff, just as I had mustered the confidence to slowly walk myself down the cliff face. After the wildest afternoon of the trip, we got to the bus station and took a bus bound for Saigon (a 7 hours drive from Dalat), but which dropped us off on the side of the road after three hours so we could take a taxi into Cat Tien national park. We had a wooden hut all to ourselves, and the orchestra of the jungle was playing in full force providing perfect sleeping conditions.
The next morning, due to my having read about the poisonous snakes in Cat Tien, I insisted we hire a guide to lead us into the forest to Crocodile Lake. Given the amount we paid, I excepted a big man with a thick mustache and thicker machete to lead us through the jungle (basically a Vietnamese version of Clayton from Tarzan is what I expected). Rather, we walked along a stone path for 7 kilometers, easily reaching Crocodile Lake barely breaking a sweat (metaphorically of course, I was still pouring sweat just like every other day). It was a stunning and peaceful lake, but I did feel bad for having insisted on getting a guide to protect me from my irrational fear of snakes when Cailin wanted to explore by ourselves. Getting out of my own head about my own concerns and taking into account others desires is something I need to endeavor to do better. We managed to salvage the day by sharing a enchanting bike ride (pedal bikes) through the grasslands in the dying golden hour. Though as night fell and there wasn’t a star in the sky due to the clouds, I began thanking my lucky stars for giving me a friend as dope as Cailin. We boarded a bus and headed on the last leg of our journey, to Saigon. It was then that the food poisoning attacked.
Wednesday morning we awoke in Saigon. Cailin had asked to sleep in, so I slipped out early and walked around the crowded and touristy and overtly western District 1. I found the city to be much cleaner than Hanoi, but also it felt far more western. Though still obviously in a foreign land, the streets and parks and everything made me feel as though this city subscribed to a western method of urban planning. I returned to the hotel around 9am to find Cailin immobilized by some poisonous spring rolls from the night before. Though she champed out to a market for a bit, clearly she was not well enough to be out an about in Saigon. I was exhausted as well, for a dozen days we had not slept in the same place twice. After I went out for a solo sunset beer, I recalled Cailin’s love of peanuts and brought back some rice and peanut butter, and we watched Spongebob and got a good nights sleep.
Day two in Saigon went better. Though we slept in late, we got a great American breakfast (only the third bacon egg and cheese I’ve eaten in Southeast Asia) and spent the day walking around the city. The American War museum absolutely blew me away. I don’t know if it will be included in the next blog, but soon I hope to take a deep reflective look at my patriotism and what I think it means to be an American. We then visited the famous Ben Thanh Market where Cailin was able to purchase many souvenirs for many friends. After returning to the bar at which I had spent my solo sunset the evening before, we experienced a much better sunset (both in terms of quality and for having my friend there with me). We taxied down into the main part of the city, which literally felt like any major American city apart from the Vietnamese writing on the signs, and got a rooftop dinner overlooking the river and the Bitexo Tower. While the view was fantastic, you eat with your stomach and not your eyes, and the food left much to be desired. Some dry fish did not sit well in Cailin’s recuperating stomach, and my pizza tasted like it came out of a fridge in a cardboard box. Still, we managed to salvage the evening by walking up and down the main backpacker strip. Though the Ice Cream places closed, we ordered late night smoothies delivery to our hotel. Our trip was winding down, but my enjoyment of it and of Cailin’s company was not dwindling whatsoever.
The next morning, it was raining and Cailin was having an adverse reaction to the fish from the previous evening. Deciding to play it easy, we went to the movies and saw The Incredibles II. Pixar, you done it again. After the movie, Cailin was feeling terribly sick. I tried my best to help her feel better, but I am no nurse nor a caretaker in any form. Still, we somehow managed to get her to the airport, through security, onto the plane, and back to Hanoi. She collapsed into my bed and was in a deep sleep the instant we returned to my house around 12:30am that evening.
Our final day together was the epitome of bittersweet. We got a good breakfast and then went to the Women’s Museum, perhaps the most informative and interesting museum in Hanoi. Though I’d already been to the museum, and was fearing I’d come down with the same stomach bug Cailin had been fighting the day earlier, I still found it to be enlightening and eye-opening. We made it back home despite a flat tire almost immobilizing us. We shared a nice chat on my roof and a nice fruit plate along the lake before heading downtown for dinner. Thinking I had made reservations somewhere else, I had accidentally booked us an exclusive table directly overlooking the Vietnam Wedding Dress Festival 2018, where they were rooting between bumping Christian Hymnals and Western Classics every other song. Finally, after looking all across Vietnam I was able to order and enjoy some deep fried calamari. Cailin managed to eat and keep down more in this one sitting than she had in all her meals since Wednesday combined. After dinner, we met up with some friends of mine from Tulane who were in town for the evening during their voyage across Southeast Asia. It was incredible to see them as we waited out a pounding rainstorm inside before a couple of us took an incredible stroll along Hoan Kiem Lake. Around midnight, Cailin and I departed back to my house. Feelings of sadness were beginning to overwhelm me, but they were assuaged momentarily when we got home and spent an hour looking over the pictures she had taken during our journey, sharing in laughs and memories and each others company.
Cailin left at 8am. Groggy as we both were from 5ish hours of sleep, it didn’t really hit me until her taxi pulled away that my best friend was leaving, that our journey of a lifetime had reached its conclusion, and that I won’t see her again until Christmas. As sadness washed over me, it was mixed with a deep sense of gratitude. I have been on the receiving end of many great gifts throughout my life. I got an iPod Touch 8gb for Christmas once. In college, my friend Jack Rekucki gave me a gilded elephant carving which perfectly complimented the wooden elephant head I already had. However (sorry Jack) the best gift anyone has ever given me was by Cailin in coming to visit. The gift of herself and the gift of friendship. The gift of sharing with me the two most amazing weeks I could ever have in this life. Throughout our friendship, whenever we say goodbye, Cailin and I reflect on a quote by the great philosopher Winnie the Pooh.
How lucky I am to have someone as impossibly amazing as Cailin for a best friend. How lucky I am to have spent time exploring new lands with her, sharing in the beauty of this country and of this life.
Full blog with details stories and hopefully an accompanying vlog from the trip to be expected sometime early next week.