Squad Takes Nam (A Photo-Essay)

Before Reading the Blog, Please enjoy this little photo montage I made of our adventure set to Hall and Oates.  You will see some of the pictures again further down in the blog and learn more about them and our adventure as a whole.

Grey clouds engulf Hanoi as the remnants of Typhoon Mangkhut moves over the city.  A heavy rain pounds down, the heaviest since another typhoon came through in early August.  It creates a reflective atmosphere in which I look back upon the last month of my life and am filled with intense gratitude and joy.  As stated in the blog post “Wilderest Dreams”, I could’ve never imagined a scenario like I had the past month, when friends aplenty visited me on literally the other side of the world.  I had been looking forward to this adventure for so long, it’s strange that now it’s in the rearview. And although each second was incredible and I wouldn’t change a single moment (except the night we lost the Kook Cam, RIP), I am filled with a distinct type of sadness, almost sort of an emotional hangover from being on such a high for so long and realizing that it’s over (I also might still be a little bit actually hungover from Singapore).  Drowning out this sadness though is infinite gratitude and deep appreciation for the month that was – the best month of my life.

Words are insufficient devices to express the joy I felt each moment of each day as I looked around me and found myself surrounded by friendly familiar faces filled with ear to ear smiles, bellies full of beer belting out laughter with Vietnam as the backdrop for a legendary adventure.  I am too clumsy a writer to capture with any brevity the magic of the adventures of the past month. But I’ll give it my best shot.

It started late on Saturday, August 18th, when the first visitor Jack Barry arrived in Hanoi.  He had miscalculated his sleeping schedule on his flight and also had been delayed slightly so upon his arrival we didn’t go to tear up the town, we enjoyed a lazy night in catching up.  The next day I took Jack Barry for his first Bun Cha, and taught him when I was saying “cam on” I was not beckoning him to more quickly put the garlic on his meal so I could do so next, but rather that I was saying “thank you” in Vietnamese to the waitress for bringing us the delicious meal.  The weather was scorching so we spent much of the time sheltered in AC, unable to explore the city until the midday heat would break. Jack Barry’s first day in town, I still had to teach so I left him with a South African friend named Robyn. By the time I returned from work, Jack Barry, as he often is, was gleefully inebriated.  We shared a fantastic BBQ dinner (the first of many over the past month) and met up with some more friends afterwards.

Monday was more of the same, perhaps I should’ve taken us to get Bahn Mi’s or smoothies because the hot and sweaty weather did not make for ideal Bun Cha consumption conditions.  However, that afternoon after the heat broke we found ourselves at “The Sanctuary”, an outdoor pool / bar about an 8 minute drive from my house with my friends Dave and Lauren and their pup Sally.  After a couple great hours of lounging in and around the pool, I departed for work but Jack Barry, ever the social butterfly, stayed with Dave and Lauren. I returned home after work to find Jack snuggled up with Sally, Dave and Lauren leaving her with us to go on a date night.  Several more friends came over that night and we played a card game called “Secret Hitler” (if you’ve never played, I’d recommend it). Each day was getting better than the previous, and still only one visitor had arrived.

On Tuesday, August 21 Jack Barry accompanied me to work.  He was overwhelmed and impressed by the level of organized chaos that defines a Vietnamese English classroom (at least one where Teacher Thatcher is leading the way).  We then sped home, overwhelmed with excitement for in just a few hours the second visitor, Margot Palandjian would arrive. Arrive she did, with the biggest smile on her face and swollen ankles from the flight but to see her was incredible.  After a couple hours of kicking it, we made a spur of the moment 2am trip to the Flower Market (if you’re ever in Hanoi, check it out at this time of night, it’s buzzing). We chowed down on some delicious Bahn Mi’s and drank Saigon beers before returning home for some much needed sleep.  

The next day we lazily got some noon-ish (1pm-ish) bun cha, before departing for the Cong Vien Tay Ho, translated “New Sun Water Park – West Lake”, a fantastic little water park just a 10 minute walk from my house.  We spent the day there racing down the approximately dozen slides they offer, floating lazily around the lazy river, and enjoying life in Vietnam. I had to keep pinching myself that Jack Barry and Margot were in Hanoi with me at this waterpark on such a beautiful Vietnamese August afternoon.  What a life. On our walk back to my house, Margot and Jack delighted in some street vendored snails while I crushed a pair of small Bahn Mi Bao Ga’s, small fried small chicken sandwiches on extremely doughy bun topped with veggies and mayo. We rested up with quick naps, and then headed back to the BBQ place for the second time of many in the month to delight in some mushrooms wrapped in beef, cheese wrapped in beef, beef, bia and more beef.  We departed from there to Hanoi Rock City, a gathering drinking hole for expats which hosts an open mic night every Wednesday. We delighted in the musical talents of people from around the world well into the morning

It is at this point where I think I want to do away with the chronological retelling of the adventure.  Too many people arrive and too much happens, and I’m not crippled in bed so I don’t have four days to write a novella like I did after Cailin was here.  Rather, I’ve elected to find my ten (or so) favorite pictures and videos from the week, and beneath each I’ll write a bit about the situation in which they were taken, sort of like a photo essay combined with an actual essay.  I’ll end the blog with a sappy soliloquy about how much I love my friends which will in large part restate what was said in the prelude blog “How Lucky Am I… (Pt. II)”. And the story of mine and Margot’s adventures after everyone else left (including how I peaked in Singapore) will be coming later this week or early next week.

Picture 1: Circus Pub


In this picture, I am with Adam Kalina and Jack Rekucki, two pledge brothers and two of my best friends.  This picture was taken at a hole in the wall bar somewhere in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, I don’t know the true name of the bar but have taken to calling it “Circus Pub” because the inside reminds me of a circus tent.  This was taken relatively early on in the evening, as evidenced by the relative dryness of my shirt. Rekucki had arrived around noon that day, and Adam Kalina, having been delayed in Los Angeles, had just arrived not an hour prior.  This picture means a lot to me because I have so many great memories with each of these guys in a city over 14,000 kilometers (8,750 miles) away in New Orleans, and this was on August 23rd, the outset of our adventure and the beginning of our journey on the other side of the world.  I’m also wearing my favorite shirt and haven’t completely ruined it for the night yet.

Picture 2: El Loco Tapas Bar


This picture was taken Friday, August 24 at El Loco Tapas Bar in Tay Ho, Hanoi just about a 10 minute walk from my house.  It is my favorite restaurant in the city. The calamaris are to die for. Typically, this restaurant is saved for special occasions, such as whenever a friend who I’ve made out here leaves Hanoi or it’s somebody’s birthday.  What more special occasion could call for Tapas than the arrival of all these beautiful people in Hanoi, with the final three visitors less than 12 hours from arriving? On the table are the fried calamaris, some deep fried camembert cheese with jam on top, chicken and mushroom croquettes, a cheese taster board, some Spanish gorgonzola meatballs, Patatas Bravis with aoili, grilled oysters and of course some extra bread.  We were washing it all down with Sangria, and Margot (who was known as “Nuoc Ba”, or “Water Lady”, due to her extreme hydration vigilance the whole trip) was also encouraging us to continue to down the La Vie Waters.

Picture 3: Thom’s Cafe

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This picture was taken Saturday, August 25.  All guests had arrived, and we were sitting at the lovely Thom’s Cafe located near the middle of West Lake on the eastern bank.  It was conveniently two minutes walking from where my brother, Jack Barry and I had elected to take advantage of the prices of custom suits in Vietnam, so the two of them are not pictured as they are getting fitted.  I got fitted first and strolled over to Thom’s Cafe to delight in the best egg avocado cucumber Bahn Mi I have yet to happen across in Hanoi, along with a top five mango smoothie. Everyone else seemed very content enjoying the great food and great conversation.  Uninteresting people don’t up and move to Hanoi. While sitting at Thom’s Cafe, we struck up conversations with several passerby’s, each with interesting stories and opinions and ways of looking at the world.

Picture 4: Vietnamese Hacky Sack

This video was taken on Saturday, August 25th after a fantastic meal at Cau Go Vietnamese Restaurant overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of the the Old Quarter in Hanoi.  On Saturday’s, the roads around Hoan Kiem are closed off to traffic and become walking streets and a vibrant Vietnamese block party. We saw a group of locals playing what I just know as Vietnamese Hacky sack.  Basically, they take a badminton shuttlecock, remove the rubber ending and add a bunch of washers to weigh it down and then a rubber stopper so you aren’t kicking the washers, and then use it as a hacky sack. The Vietnamese were good, Aubrey with a background in JV soccer for the Greens Farms Dragon’s was passable, everyone else was terrible.  It didn’t matter. The Vietnamese loved playing with us, some Koreans joined in, and others from nationalities I couldn’t quite distinguish. It’s moments like this that are truly special – surrounded by my friends from home while making connections with people from around the world.


Picture 5a – Ngu Lam Peak

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Taken when we summited Ngu Lam Peak in Cat Ba, the highest peak in Cat Ba National Park at about 1000 meters above sea level (but only a 45 minute hike from where we parked our bikes), it offers a stunning panoramic view of the entire island which seems to stretch on for eternity of the jagged, unmistakable Vietnamese hills.  I had sweated through my shirt on the way up so had left it somewhere to dry. I asked Margot to take a picture of us, but she instead took a panoramic, which I was unsure would work because I was not confident in my ability to keep my shaky body from spazzing out for more than two seconds. Nuoc Ba pulled through beautifully, and this picture is no doubt one of my favorite from the trip.  The panoramic does a better job than other pictures to give you a sense of the vastness of the scale, but does not adequately at all depict the depth of the mountain range which covers the national park. The only way to see that is with your own eyes.
Picture 5b – Ngu Lam Peak

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This one was taken just several minutes after the previous one and at the same place so I’m gonna count these as two parts of the same picture.  In this one, I am with my brother and my oldest friend who made the voyage to Vietnam for this trip, Aubrey Carter. All three of us went to the same High School, Greens Farms Academy so expect to see this picture on the cover of the next issue of the Alumni Magazine.  This is one of the pictures my brother and I sent to our family during the trip, and my father immediately posted it on Facebook with the caption “Something my dad never would have said – my two sons enjoying the jungles of Viet Nam”. I thought it was a witty caption but it really got me thinking how lucky I am to live in a time when I can travel the world and be joined by my friends in such a beautiful country.  Coming over here, the first thing I associated with Vietnam was “war”. After eight months in this beautiful country having some of the most peaceful memories I could ever imagine, The American War is the furthest thing from my mind most of the time.

Picture 6 – Goin’ Bananas


The morning of Monday, August 27 was a groggy and agitated one.  The stress of so many people visiting at one time, asking what we were doing next and me feeling as though I had to make sure they were all alright was beginning to get to me.  Margot and I hopped on a bike, Aubrey and Kalina on a second and we sped into town to look for a place to rent a boat to go out into Lan Ha Bay, just south of the world famous Ha Long Bay (but it’s the same thing minus the thousands of Chinese tourists).  We found a boat which would take us out for basically nothing, so we signed up and raced back to the hostel to get everyone else. I found a local shirt vendor and purchased 8 banana Hawaiian shirts, because why not? We all donned the shirts, and our driver Han hopped in front as we took a picture before setting sail into the bay for what was one of the best and most unforgettable days of my life.

Picture 7 – Captain Nuoc Ba


For over four hours on August 27, we explored Lan Ha Bay via boat and kayak, foot and swimming.  We found our own little private island upon which we clinked beer cans and listened to groovy tunes, until a flash monsoon put a halt to all that.  Getting back to the boat as lightening struck down not more than half a kilometer away was the most alive I’ve ever felt. We were able to get everything – speakers, beers, people, and other important supplies – back onto the boat, but it was chaotic and exhilarating.  Honestly, the freak typhoon may have been one of my favorite moments of the trip. Both before and after the 20 minutes of excitement the typhoon afforded, we spent hours lounging lazily in Lan Ha Bay, sipping on Bia Saigon’s and Bia Ha Noi’s and listening to the sweet stylings of John Mayer.  Anyways, we were making our way back towards Cat Ba when Margot asked the driver if she could steer the boat for a little bit. Not only did he say yes, once she took the helm he basically handed the captainship to her. He offered little to no advice and looked downright disinterested as she navigated us back through a floating village, through the towering jade spires which make up the bay.  Margot peaked, as evidenced by picture 7b.

Picture 7b – Margot Peaking


Here is a reverse angle of the previous picture, Margot Palandjian in full peak mode.
Picture 8 – Supreme


Taken on Wednesday, August 29 at Dong Am Tien Park in Ninh Binh, Vietnam, this picture now forever adorns the front of several black shirts with a couple of (possibly trademark-violating) “Supreme” logos on it.  That morning, Margot had found two very beautiful but very fake gold chains, one with an emerald fat Buddha inside and one which was shaped like a tiger tooth with a golden tiger on the top. As a good friend Justin Arzi put it when he saw a picture, “that chain go dumb”.  Kalina, infatuated with the chain, was lent it by Margot. Once he got it, the camera fell in love with him. Stay tuned for a full photoshoot in a later blog. We were at Dong Am Tien for several hours, trapped by a heavy rainstorm. However, they still had ice cream and water and I had by my side my friends Jimmy, Margot and Kalina so I was as happy as a clam.  The post-rain mist made for some great photography conditions, thus resulting in what you see here.


Picture 9 – Cheering on Vietnam

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If there’s one thing Vietnam will always go crazy for, it is their U23 soccer team.  The Asia Games were taking place in Jakarta, with the underdog Vietnam team outperforming expectations and getting ready to square up with a powerful South Korean team in the semi-finals on the afternoon of August 29th.  I consider the host of the hostel we stayed at, Tran “Badman”, to be a friend, as this was my fifth time staying at his hostel and I’ve gotten to know him pretty well. I told him we were all excited for the game, he went out and bought 8 matching Vietnam shirts, headbands, and stickers for all of us to wear.  While the Vietnamese team ended up falling 3-1 to a stronger and more disciplined Korean team, it didn’t kill the spirit of Vietnam and didn’t stop Badman from partying with us and doing Karaoke deep into the morning hours. The highlights of karaoke included singing “Sweet Caroline” with my brother, Kalina’s rendition of “Livin’ on a Prayer”, the two Jack’s, Barry and Rekucki absolutely electrifying the crowd with a duet of “Dead or Alive”, and of course Badman’s rendition of Lionel Richie’s seductive “Hello”.  Badman also learned how to play Beer Die and do a “Roll Wave”.


Picture 10a – Bun Cha Huyen Linh

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Taken on our last day as a group of eight, we went to my favorite Bun Cha place in Hanoi just around the corner from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the presidential botanical gardens.  It is a beautiful spot, a thin hole in the wall which can only fit about twelve people at a time, so the eight of us took up almost the whole damn place. Bun cha is a Northern Vietnamese food made of pork belly and shoulder mixed into a broth and served with rice noodles, and it is my favorite food I’ve found in Vietnam, possibly cracking my top five favorite foods of all time.  This place has, in my opinion, the best bun cha in Hanoi, and Hanoi has the best bun cha in the world, so therefore this place has the best Bun Cha in the world.
Picture 10b – Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum


Just a picture of squad deep at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.  The rain was pouring and I had convinced Margot we could leave our rain jackets in my motorbike.  Everyone else, having taken a taxi down there, was well prepared for the storm, apart from Aubrey who not only didn’t have a rain coat but ended up losing a toenail in a tragic slipping accident just a couple of minutes after this picture was taken.  Jack Barry didn’t have a raincoat either.

Picture 10c – Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House

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The final picture in this blog is a picture of all eight of us, some enjoying coconut ice cream but all enjoying the final couple of hours of having this legendary squad in Vietnam.  I don’t know how I could’ve ever been so blessed, how the timing worked out so well and so many friends descended upon Vietnam at the same time. What you have seen is just a highlight, 10 (okay a couple more than 10) of my favorite photos from this week long journey I shared with seven magical people.

This brings us up through August 31st, when Kalina, Rekucki and Jimmy all departed back to the States.  I couldn’t be more thankful for the squad we had and the times we shared. I can’t believe how well everything went.  I’ve never considered myself a “planner” per say, I do love trying to organize events where a lot of friends can come hang out, because my favorite thing is hanging out with my friends.  I was shocked each day as we successfully moved from place to place in Vietnam, things going relatively according to the itinerary I had drawn up. I want to thank each and every person who came to visit me.  It’s not secret I was in a bit of a rut leading up to their visit. I was still recovering from the most traumatic incident and most painful experience of my life. But these 7 people helped me fall in love with Vietnam all over again.  In a blog hopefully later this week or early next, I’ll recount the amazing two weeks when the Queen of the Johnson’s Margot Palandjian stuck around and we continued having once in a lifetime adventures and I do believe we achieved Full Nam Johnson.

Thank you to everyone who came.  Thank you to everyone who cares enough to read this blog.  Thank you to everyone around the world who considers me a friend.  I am blessed beyond belief.

As always, Roll Damn Wave.



How Lucky Am I… (Pt. II)

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Cheering on the U23 Soccer team to a loss against South Korea in Ninh Binh

They say friends are the family you choose, and if that’s the case then I have the best extended family in the world.

Without a doubt in my mind the thing I am most proud of in my life is the friends I’ve made. The most valuable possession I have is the relationships with those who mean the most to me. How I convinced any of them to ever hangout with me is still a mystery.

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Bun Cha Huyền Linh, The best Bun Cha in Hanoi (and therefore, the world)

In late August, for a little over a week, friends from many facets of life joined me in Hanoi and adventured around Vietnam. Adam Kalina, Jack Barry, Jack Rekucki, Aubrey Carter, my older brother Nathan, Jimmy Ferrare, and Margot Palandjian made for the best squad to ever do Vietnam. We tore up Hanoi and traveled to the beautiful destinations of Cat Ba and Ninh Binh outside the city. I was lucky enough to have Margot stick around for a couple weeks to help me delight in and truly experience the magic of Hanoi along with take a couple more trips out to the countryside, then we topped it off this weekend with the cherriest of all cherries at the Singapore Formula 1 Grand Prix.

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Stilt Pagoda in Ba Dinh, Hanoi

A full blog post and hopefully a photo montage set to sappy music will come later this week, as all visitors have now left and I will have some time to organize my thoughts and document our incredible adventures.

I want to say thank you to all the visitors this past month. You were all incredible and made me fall in love with Vietnam all over again. The adventures we went on and good times we shared are memories I will cherish for the rest of my life. I’d also like to thank all my friends around the world for being so dope. At the end of the day as long as your rich in friends that’s all that really matters, and I feel like a billionaire.

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Panoramic of Ngu Lam Peak in Cat Ba National Park (pano cred: Margot)

Sure I’m feeling a little sappy as I fly to Hanoi for the final time and will have to readjust to being solo out here, but through the visitors I strengthened existing friendships in Hanoi. Friendship begets friendship. I’m also excited to get a good nights sleep for the first time since mid August.

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Squad Deep in front of Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

My head is spinning, but my heart is full and I feel at peace. I am looking forward to appreciating each day I have remaining in Hanoi, and then going on another unforgettable adventure around Asia before returning to the US on Christmas Eve. I can’t wait to see all of my friends back home. More friends will join in Hanoi and during my final journey, and I’m infinitely grateful to have so many incredible people who have decided to make the trek all the way across the world to visit. I’m overwhelmed. I’m blessed beyond measure. I don’t know how else to put it. There’s really no other way I can put it.

Winnie the Pooh, take it away… 

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Wilderest Dreams

When I came to Vietnam, I was preparing for a year abruptly abroad, absent of many visits from friends or family.  I figured my parents would come out and visit once, maybe my brothers would make it out here, and maybe I’d be lucky enough to have some friends pass through Hanoi for a night or two on grander travels.  What has actually happened is beyond my wildest imagination.

Within the first two weeks of my arrival in Hanoi, a great friend and roommate Quintin Baxter visited on his journey across Southeast Asia.  He was in Northern Vietnam for four days and we hung out in Hanoi and took an amazing trip to Ha Long Bay.  I honestly cannot say for certain if I’d’ve been able to weather those chaotic and jarring first couple weeks without Quintin’s visit.

February and March were devoid of visitors, and I was overwhelmed much of the time by the isolation I felt from home.  I was rattled by how new and different everything in Vietnam was.  I questioned whether I could stick it out.  On February 4th, a good friend of mine Adam Kalina gave me the biggest vote of confidence I’ve ever received and booked a plane ticket to Hanoi for late August.  Keep in mind, I hadn’t been in Vietnam for a month at that time.  I was all over the place.  The confidence gained by having a friend believe in my ability to figure it out and get settled here was invaluable.  A couple weeks after that, another good friend Jack Barry was in talks to visit and I was able to convince him to overlap with Kalina.  Within two months my older brother Nathan and a good friend from high school, Aubrey Carter, had booked flights out for late August as well.  Mad, right?  But the madness doesn’t stop there.

In mid-March, Cailin O’Brien booked tickets to come out and visit me in June after she graduated from USC.  In early April, my parents visited and we took a fantastic trip to the northernmost tip of the country and we discussed many of the things which I had been having trouble with being so far from home.  I would not have been able to make it further in the journey without insights from my parents at this time.  In late April, my friend Harry Skinner came through Hanoi for several days after visiting his brother in Hong Kong.  I reflected on how nice it was to sit back and shoot the shit with a world-class shit-shooter such as Harry in a blog back in April.  Both of the visits in April were incredible.

Then June arrived, and so did Cailin on my doorstep and for sixteen magical days we galavanted across this great nation, from the northern capital of Hanoi all the way down to the great southern city of Saigon.  It was an adventure beyond my wildest dreams, one which I detailed (with a lot of detail) in a blog in June.

Coming off such a high, I crashed (literally and figuratively).  I was broken and alone.  But I knew in the distance I had four familiar faces coming in just nine weeks.  All I had to do was make it those nine weeks.  I wasn’t sure I could.

I was visited by Danielle Berg and Scott Ballan in the late parts of June / early parts of July, but I was still so banged up and rather out of it from the crash I may not have appreciated the visitors or been as good a host as I might’ve been in healthier times.  It was still great to see these two friends and they helped a lot in the immediate aftermath of a dramatic crash.

It is at this point when shit starts to get really crazy.

On my birthday, July 17, I received a FaceTime from Margot Palandjian, one of the best Johnson’s I have the pleasure of knowing.  While we were catching up, she casually mentioned she didn’t have much in the way of plans on the horizon, so I began lobbying for her to come to Vietnam in late August.  Within 48 hours, she had booked a one way ticket to Hanoi.

So five friends coming out at once – that’s gotta be it right?? I mean, I’m waaaaaay out here.  On the opposite side of the world.  The only place further from home I could’ve gone was Australia.  So having five incredible visitors at the same time has gotta be the maximum, right? 

That’s when the Kook Monster swooped in.  Another great friend from college, Jack Rekucki, shocked the world by booking a ticket which directly overlaps with Adam Kalina.  SIX!

As if that wasn’t enough, another friend from college Jimmy Ferrare contacted me and said he’d been living in Japan for several months, and was gonna swing through Hanoi before heading back stateside and was wondering if I would be around.  The dates he was coming: the last week of August, overlapping perfectly with everyone else. 

And thus I present to you the squad of seven I am beyond blessed to have descending upon Hanoi starting in a couple hours when Jack Barry arrives.  For the next two weeks, I will be overwhelmed with all the visitors and home friends I have been missing for so long.  But the best part – the wildest-dreams scenario does not end there.

After we have a great bit of fun and cause some chaos across Northern Vietnam, the visitors will have to unfortunately return to their lives.  On August 31st, Kalina, Rekucki and Jimmy will depart followed by Nathan, Jack and Aubrey on September 2nd. 

Margot’s sticking around.  In buying a one way ticket, she gave herself the option to hang for a bit and she’s taking advantage of it.  Until the 14th of September, I’ll be lucky enough to have a partner in crime to take on the city of Hanoi (and any trips into the countryside we are able to make as well), as well as an eager TA and new Musical Chairs contestant. 

This is where it almost seems to jump the shark.

On September 14th, Margot and I will depart for Singapore (ostensibly for my last Visa run).  While there, we will take in the Formula 1 Grand Prix at the famous Marina Bay Sands Circuit.  Let me say that again: Margot and I will be going to the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Singapore.  I told you, this stuff is beyond all imagination and explanation. 

On September 17th, I will return to Hanoi with empty pockets but surely a renewed enthusiasm for adventure.  I will then have about eight weeks to finish out my contract, enjoy the presence of friends I’ve made here, eat as much bun cha as humanly possible – all while spending as little money as I can and attempting to regrow one arm and one leg spent in Singapore.

In early November my teaching contract will end and I will set out on my final journey of this unbelievable year abroad.  Over six weeks in November and December, I will travel Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand.  Tentatively, I will start with returning to the northernmost parts of this country, revisiting the Ha Giang loop which I took with my parents in April by car, only this time conquering it via motorbike.  I will then head to Kuala Lumpur and spend a week in Malaysia, before continuing on to Bali before perhaps the thing I’m most excited for ever in my life: a week long live-aboard dive boat trip through the Komodo Islands.  After this incredible journey, I will return to Bali to relax for a week before flying up to northern Thailand to put a stamp on the damn thing by doing the Mae Hong Son Loop.  I will then fly out of Bangkok on December 23rd, arriving to New York City the afternoon of Christmas Eve. 

I don’t want to jinx anything, but I am in the works of having at least one friend or family member from home traveling with me potentially every step of this final journey.  The only times I’d be without friends or family would be on the flights in between places.  Some fellow travelers are already booked, and I am trying to lightly nudge the others towards booking.  Filling the entire schedule with companions is a long-shot, but crazier things have happened (did I mention I’m going to the Grand Prix in Singapore?). 

When I came to Vietnam, I was preparing for a year abruptly abroad, absent of many visits from friends or family.  The early part of my journey followed largely as such.  In that time, I was able to truly understand how important friends and family are, as the people with whom you surround yourself are the most important things in life.  How lucky am I to have this lesson proven time and again by amazing adventures with unbelievable visitors?  How lucky am I to have all these incredible people in my life willing to travel halfway around the world to come see me?  If I’d come to Vietnam with the expectation that what is set to transpire was always inevitable, I’d have been crazy!  So many visitors, so many adventures.  Not even in my wildest dreams could I have wished for something like this, and yet here we are.  How lucky am I…

Things I Miss

A great part about being so far from home, so removed from the clutter of daily life, is that I find myself in a place where I can truly understand what is important to me – through analyzing those things which I miss most.

Beyond friends and family, of course.  The importance of those were never in doubt, so my missing of them comes as no surprise. 

I miss live music.  Whether it be a chart-topper selling out a massive arena or a headliner at a festival or an ensemble band of brass instruments laying down the tunes of life in New Orleans, in it’s absence I have gained a true appreciation for the atmosphere which live music creates.

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The Soul Rebels perform in 2017

I miss the smell of salt water.  On days when the sun shines brightly and the temperature ensconces in triple digits, driving around Tay Ho reminds me of how much I miss the Long Island Sound, or just access to a beach and a big body of salt water to swim in.  And of course I miss sunsets aboard the Stinkpot, good times shared as the sun goes down.FullSizeRender.jpg

Long Island Sound

I miss driving in a car.  Don’t get me wrong, cruising through the Vietnamese countryside along scenic rice paddies and towering karst mountains on motorbike is unbelievably fun.  Crashing is not.  Nor is having to be hyper-alert on an hourlong commute through a Hanoi rush hour on a daily basis.   I miss being able to lean back in my seat and the click of a seatbelt.  I miss being able to blast music on long road trips.  Perhaps the thing I miss most is AC.  Or not crashing.  Probably the latter.

I miss playing catch.  I miss shooting hoops.  I don’t miss running. 

I miss American food.  Though in Tay Ho (the Expat district of Hanoi) there is much western food, it’s not my western food.  The pizza isn’t from Height’s.  The bacon egg and cheeses aren’t crafted by Tony Vavala or the staff of Tartine.  Ed Papic isn’t being the worlds finest artist / chef with a fat piece of beef.  The best burger from a restaurant fails to compete with a grill cooked burger at a backyard cookout.  Chocolate is still the same – great.

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Steak – how I miss you so

I don’t miss politics.  Though I still pay far too much attention to the tomfoolery going on in our nations capital, especially being way out here, I don’t pay it the same mind I do when I’m at home, which is nice.  I’m glad that I registered to vote.  I won’t miss out on exercising my civic duties as an American despite being on the other side of the world.

I don’t miss how expensive everything is in America.  I am not looking forward to paying more than $1.75 for lunch, or being able to go on a night out for less than what an appetizer would cost in a New York restaurant.  I will miss bun cha a lot when I leave Hanoi, that I know already.

Believe it or not, I miss squirrels.  I always thought of squirrels as the same of rats.  Living in a place that has as many rats as Connecticut has squirrels,  I can admit now that I was wrong. 

I miss rum and cokes.  This one is a self-imposed miss-age, as they do have both rum and coca cola in Vietnam and I’m sure they are quite capable of mixing them together and adding a lime.  I have been trying to drink less out here in general, but specifically less rum and cokes. 

I miss living near the Mississippi River where I could watch the big boats go back and forth.

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Of all the things at home I miss, perhaps the top three are Scooby, Callie, and Trey

Though I said at the beginning it goes without saying, the more I think about it the more I miss friends and family at home.  Obviously I miss being near them and being able to physically hang out, but also as I spend more time away from home the emotional distance grows larger.  As days turn to weeks turn to months, I am less and less on top of being in touch with people. More things happen at home, people move further into their adult lives and I am out here missing it all.  When I get back things will be so different and I will have to catch up on so much.  While it is amazing to be in Vietnam on this adventure, I do miss most those whom without I would’ve never had the confidence to come out here. 

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A couple of fellas who I miss a lot

But I know there is so much I will miss about Vietnam when I leave.  The bun cha.  The kids I teach.  The friends I’ve made out here.  The sense of adventure and excitement.  It will be fascinating to look back several months after I’ve returned home and see what else, without the fog of day to day life, I truly miss, and what I truly learned on this journey.




Etcetera Etcetera

Life continues to move along in Hanoi.  I am fully back in a routine, waking up and scurrying to the gym in the morning between bouts of rain, struggling at yoga and even back in the weight room finally.  Afternoons remain long and devoid of much sustenance, as the all too frequent downpours make the outdoors an unpleasant place to be most days.  I am back in a “save money” mode as the days until an armada of friends arrive dwindle.  Within two weeks from today, seven friends will have arrived and we will be off on an adventure across Northern Vietnam.  While I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about who is coming and how excited I am to see each person, I don’t think the gravity of the visit has hit me yet.  I’ve been out here seeing a friend or two from home every now and again.  Soon, I will be overwhelmed by a bevy of buddies.

While I looked into taking the squad towards central Vietnam to get a better survey of the country, the timing and pricing and logistics did not work out.  I thought planning my trip with Cailin in June was intense, but that was just two people.  Even conceptualizing getting seven people from Hanoi to central Vietnam, see all the stuff, and back in a five day period was overwhelming.  We opted for a more leisurely northern excursion out of Hanoi when everyone arrives, taking us to Cat Ba and Ninh Binh.  This will be my second time to Cat Ba and fifth to Ninh Binh – I feel as though going places I’ve been before with such a large group is best because I know what to expect from each location and what to do there.  With this not on my mind, I can pay more attention to everyones enjoyment of the trip.  Hopefully there won’t be too many surprises, and hopefully the rain holds off for the most part.

I can’t find the words to express adequately how unbelievable it feels to be in such a remote part of the world, so removed from everything and everyone at home, and to have such a group coming out.  The times shared and memories made in the coming weeks will no doubt be among the best of this incredible year abroad.  It means the world that these friends have decided that I was worth traveling across the globe to visit, or that Vietnam is worth it and they can put up with me.

I have kept myself busy in Hanoi.  I have been reading more, though still not enough.  I am currently working my way through Forrest Gump, and my favorite movie is quickly becoming one of my favorite books as well.  I consume movies like a madman, especially when the rain gets very heavy.  I have found a t-shirt producer in Hanoi who can print in full color for cheap, which has been extremely antithetical to my attempt to save money – but now I have a bunch of cool custom shirts.  To anyone reading this blog, if there’s ever something (a picture, etc) you’ve wanted to put on a shirt, don’t hesitate to contact me.

Teaching has become routine at this point.  The first several months of teaching were chaotic and varied drastically from day to day.  Some days were fantastic and other days were terrible.  With a couple of months under my belt, a couple of months getting to know the kids, and a couple of months figuring out that young children are more like dogs than anybody ever admits, most days are now easy and fun.  I’ve got the timing of the classes worked out, I plan a lesson which should last around an hour and fifteen minutes (with time built in for Hangman, videos, etc), leaving the last portion of the class for “Music Chair”.  If the kids are slow in learning the lesson or misbehave, it’s less time for Musical Chairs, and they know this.  Whoever said money is the best motivator has not seen the passion Vietnamese children exhibit for Musical Chairs.

The children love Western music, but I would not consider their taste to be broad.  Their favorite songs are “Havana” and “Shape of You”.  I have introduced other songs, like “ABC” by the Jackson 5 or “September” by Earth Wind and Fire to positive reactions.  One song I have insisted on all classes learning, and which the students I believe have truly come to enjoy, is the “YMCA”.

Rain in Hanoi is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  It comes on quickly out of no where – it can be a beautiful sunny day at 1pm and a chaotic monsoon by 1:05.  Google is of no help to predict weather pattern.  The rain comes down as though the sky were furious at the earth and was throwing itself down as hard as it can.  There are few sights more ominous than dozens of Vietnamese motorcyclists pulled over to the side of the road frantically putting on their rain jackets as the day fades dark in the early afternoon.  On days when it rains heavily, I have begun taking taxis to work as my track record on the motorbike is less than stellar.  My parents have been kind enough to help shoulder this financial burden, though I think my mom was ecstatic at any thought of me driving around on the motorbike less, rain or not.

This is a bit of a boring and more muted blog because, though life is still largely exciting and challenging, the past couple weeks I will admit have been slow.  The dog days of August are not isolated in the United States, they stretch worldwide.  August is the international transpacific lazy Sunday of the year. 

I don’t want to give the impression that I am a hermit – I still go to lunches and dinners and pubs with various friends I’ve made in Hanoi.  I have been searching high and low for the best Mango Smoothie in Hanoi.  I still am very fond of my housemates and meet new people quite often.  I have developed an itch for board games (beyond Catan) I did not possess before this trip.  I appreciate transient Hanoi friendships and the company they provide and the opportunities I have to interact with people whom, outside of this amazing journey I am on, I would’ve never had the occasion to know they exist.

I find it hard to believe sometimes that I’ve been out here for seven months now.  Sometimes I feel as though I just arrived yesterday, other times I feel though I’ve been out here for half a lifetime. 

As the date of my return home approaches ever so slowly, my mind begins to drift towards what the next step will be when I get back.  I haven’t a clue.  I imagined when I came out here that at some point my path forward would crystalize like a vision in a dream implanted by some divine angel.  As of yet, no such luck.  I am very excited to see my dogs though.

I wish I had more interesting things to write or a crazy story to tell, but alas, the rains, recuperation, and time of year have muted the adventure – if only for a couple weeks.  No doubt once friends arrive the excitement level will shoot back up, the adventure will be in full swing once again.

A Cloudy Sunrise

Sunset has always been my favorite time of day.  As I look westward and watch that giant ball of gas slowly fade behind the horizon, I feel at peace.  Throughout my life, I have had some great spots and company for many sunsets.  Sunset offers a reflective atmosphere, a stoic peace of mind, a sense of clarity.  It also ushers in the night.

If I could make so bold a metaphor, the final days of Cailin’s visit in June felt somewhat a sunset on a certain phase of my journey.  As I reflected on all I had done up to that point, and on the incredible journey across Vietnam I had just shared with my best friend, life felt like it should.  Cailin left, the sun set, and night came crashing down.

It was pitch black and largely lonely.  Days stretched on forever in the dead of night.  I didn’t get hardly any sleep.  The pain, both mental and physical, was overwhelming and at times I doubted whether I could weather the storm.  But this blog post is not about the night, nor about sunsets.  It is about the dawn.

Monsoon season has hit Hanoi – hard.  For eleven days spanning the past two weeks, rain has rapped down upon the city almost sixteen hours a day.  The sun has been held hostage behind a constant thick layer of oppressively gray clouds.

Sunday morning, I woke up and peered out my window.  I was greeted by a bright blue sky, with but white puffy clouds peppering the horizon.  The sun beats down brilliantly illuminating this beautiful city with natural light and energy.  Coincidentally (and perhaps fittingly), Sunday morning was also the first time since my accident I was well enough to do yoga.  As 11am came, I hopped upon my bike and sped towards the gym for the first time in weeks.

My first several days back at yoga have been a reawakening.  I don’t claim to be great at yoga, I didn’t at the end of May and have regressed in my nearly two months off.  I have lost limberness, and my ankle is still not yet 100%, so it becomes sore quickly during the practice.  However, I am – for an hour a day – able to move and stretch and be in the moment.  The storms of the past month matched the raging storm of dark thoughts in my head as I tossed and turned across my bed in pain, physically unable to do anything but wallow in my own pity.  To return to yoga, to capture my thoughts and control the direction in which they flow, to exist in the moment has been cathartic beyond measure.  A hearty welcome back from my yoga teachers and fellow practicers was great as well, to know often the only male of the class had been missed, if only because I make everyone else look better (my guess). 

Sunset has always been my favorite time of day, but that’s because I’m usually asleep at sunrise.  In this stretched metaphor I’ve crafted, night was not but a 12 hour dark period, but rather a month of mental darkness and physical distraught – which is what makes the metaphorical sunrise so welcome.   I was not myself this past month, via combination of weather and injury and mental weariness.  I was immobilized by injury.  I was trapped by weather.  I was lost in my own mind.  It is tough times which make us, which define us.  Struggle and hardships reveal character while at the same time building it.  No doubt this journey will not, for returning to yoga and the sun being out a couple days, flip a switch and turn to sunshine and daisies.  It will still be difficult, there will still be lows.  This last low, the lowest low of my life thus far, I feel is in my rearview mirror, however (knock on wood).  I have learned much, grown much.  Sometimes to survive, to endure is an achievement in and of itself.  Certainly feels the case in this instance.  Putting my trust in friends both here and at home, and in myself, I believed the metaphorical sun would rise again.  And alas, I can finally see it has fully broken over the horizon to the east, and a sense of clarity washes over me.

In the clarity, I felt a gratitude for the continuing challenge.  In the clarity, I felt a gratitude for the journey.  In the clarity, I felt nothing but gratitude, for things past, for things yet to come, and for the peacefulness of the moment I was in, the moment of clarity.  Clearly, I have a lot to be thankful for.


Storms and Sunrises in Hanoi

Mangled ankles and mango smoothies

Missing home and watching movies

Oscillation between sadness and joy

This is where I find myself in Hanoi

Some days I get out and explore this great city

Some days I get lost deep inside my own mind

Some days I can look around and find what there’s to find

Some days I can’t get out from under my own self pity

As the weather goes from sunny to storms

Darkness in my head like locusts swarm

Adrift amidst an angry sea of thoughts

But then the sea becomes tame and worries naught

Though calms seas never a skilled sailor did make

Can I weather this weather? Do I have what it takes?

Knowing after every storm the sun does return

and after every hardship lessons are learned

To survive in the storm, one must believe

In the inevitable calming of violent seas

But the sunny days won’t last forever

A new storm awaits over the horizon

Through the hardships, to endure I endeavor

And know that the sun will someday be rising

The Searcher

My second visa run to Bangkok is completed. I am officially in the second half of this amazing journey abroad. My spirits oscillate wildly between being excited at the journey left ahead, only to plunge into self doubt on whether or not I can complete it. In my heart of hearts I know I can do it and I will find a way, but it’s not been easy.

The human body is amazing. My shoulder, knee, and hip were all torn to bits with bits of Vietnamese highway in them just 18 days ago. Today, the scabs are gone and just scars and a heroic story about how I sacrificed myself to save a puppy remains. My ankle is still an open wound, but I visited the best hospital in Bangkok over the weekend. Conversing with a doctor who was completely fluent in English and could answer all of my neurotic hypochondriac questions after having a Vietnamese Doctor refer to my toes as fingers for two weeks felt unbelievably healing in and of itself. The doctors assured me the ankle is healing, albeit slowly.

I saw a man die the other day. I was driving home from work Friday night when someone whizzed by me on a motorbike at well over 100 km/hr. When I was younger and we saw a crazy guy driving on the highway, my dad would always refer to them as a “cowboy”. “Just another cowboy with a death wish” I thought to myself. He had a loud bike I could hear coming from a mile behind me. He raced ahead of me about 100 or 150 meters, then flipped. I do not know if he hit a pot hole, car, truck, whatever. All I know is in a split second he was six feet upside down in the air. The whole thing happened in slow motion. He rag dolled. Bike slammed on his legs then slid in a different direction from it’s former rider. Still skidding at great speed, his helmetless skull slammed against the divider curb and his body came to an abrupt stop, utterly motionless. I vomited. Car and truck traffic came to a halt, but motorbikes continued to squeeze by. As I drove by slowly, I had to lift my slippers off the pavement so as not to soak them in blood. I don’t remember what the mans head looked like, my mind and conscious have blocked it out. I just remember thinking of a cracked egg.  I didn’t stick around beyond that, rather puttered home, head on a swivel, not exceeding 50km/hr. I’m not gonna devolve a diatribe about the fragility of life, there’s many poets who’ve said it far better than I ever could. I honestly have not been as impacted by the event as I thought I would be. Rattling no doubt. Traumatizing for sure. Add it to the list. Carry on. Keep moving forward. That’s all I have to say about that.

On a happier note, England’s World Cup success has got the expats of Hanoi abuzz.  Most of my friends in Hanoi have not been American (only met like three who are teaching English), but rather a mix of South Africans and Brits. I delighted in staying out til 4am watching England defeat Colombia in penalty kicks, then celebrating the victory til well past the sun came up (on the Fourth of July, no less). Though I was in Thailand for the quarterfinal match against Sweden, I found a bar nearby to watch the first half, watching the second half from a comfy couch at the hostel. Fully aboard the Hype Train, I purchased a full Three Lions kit from a market in Bangkok. I can’t wait for Wednesday night (Thursday morning 1am) to cheer along side those from what I’ve taken to referring to as my “grandmother” country, chanting about football coming home. It’s coming home. It’s coming home. Footballs coming home.

I have made no secret of how difficult this journey has been for me at times. Without a doubt, these past several weeks have been the most trying. But I think I’m through the worst of it. My ankle, according to the doctors in Bangkok, should be fully healed in another week or two. I am more able to teach with the excitement and passion required, which had been muted by physical pain. Friday, a good friend Scotty Ballan from Tulane who is in Hong Kong for the summer flies into Hanoi for the weekend. My 24th birthday is a little over a week away. In August, a platoon of friends will arrive five men strong. These past several weeks have been dark, but day begins to break over the horizon.

I have been listening to a lot of John Mayer recently. Though cliche, I have found wisdom and strength in the refrain of his song “Vultures”.

Down to the wire, I wanted water but I walked through the fire

If this is what it takes to take me even higher

Then I’ll come through like I do

When the world keeps testing me, testing me, testing me


Equally as cliche (if not more so), in all the free time I’ve had I’ve found myself writing some poetry in attempts to make sense of everything.  Below is one of the poems I’ve written…



What are you searching for, Thatcher?

Funny question, I really don’t know

Maybe I’m searching for adventure, for excitement and youth

Or like Toto I’m hoping to find some long forgotten words of truth

Maybe I’m looking just to see what there is to see

Could be I’m digging deep, excavating a better version of me

Perhaps I’m peering inward to bring forward my fatal flaws

Or I might just be on a quest for Hanoi’s best Bun Cha

Maybe I’m looking all over the world to prove that I can look

Could I be looking in the wrong place? Could I be mistook?

Maybe what I’m looking for isn’t out there, but rather deep inside of me

Maybe it’s somewhere, everywhere, and nowhere, at the same time all three

Maybe what I’m looking for is simply the answer to the question posed:

“What are you looking for, Thatcher?” … I still don’t know

The Sailor / Half Way Home

The Sailor

Calm seas never a skilled sailor did make.  For the past several weeks, I have been caught in a squall of life the likes of which I had never prior had to brave.  The slow and painful recovery from a severe motorbike crash in the wake of coming off one of the highest highs of my life has been onerous, testing and enlightening. 

Throughout my time in Vietnam, and in a way my entire life, I have relied on others to help me get through my darkest hours.  There is nothing wrong with leaning on family and friends during times of strife.  Humans, as social creatures, seek the validation and comfort of others.  However, in my never-ending quest for help, I worry that I haven’t developed across my life enough of an internal impetus to power through moments of adversity like the one I find myself in now on my own.

I have too lofty expectations.  Rather than appreciating the momentary reprieve they ought to be, I too often anticipate FaceTimes with friends and family to be a one-stop fix for everything. Instead of preparing to fight my mental battles largely on my own, I try to delegate my problems to people halfway around the world, ask them for solutions and advice.  Again, there is nothing wrong with doing this in moderation.  It is when done in excess, and in the absence of any other substantive attempt to get my life back on track, that it becomes a problem.

There are simply times when I will not be strong enough to weather the storm alone.  Directly after the motorbike crash, I was physically broken and emotionally shattered.  I am so lucky to have an armada of friends back home, a full contingent of support which has saved me from sinking many times.  The FaceTimes and messages of well-wishes I received in the immediate aftermath and following days from the crash were immeasurable in how much they meant to me and imperative in getting me through the worst of the pains.

But the dust settles.  My shoulder heals to a bright pink, tender to the touch coat of new skin.  My leg honestly doesn’t even hurt anymore.  I finally can flip to my right side while sleeping.  The bump of my ankle, reeling from localized third degree burn stubbornly but slowly gets better.  My toes (continuously referred to as “fingers” by the doctors at the Vietnamese hospital) have improved to the point that I can again don my favorite pair of Rainbow Flip Flops.  And yet I still feel some emotion which escapes my vocabulary in the aftermath of the shock of the crash, and I can’t explain it to others or myself and thus struggle mightily with it.   

There is no doubt I am reeling still from the shock of the crash.  Driving two and a half hours through the Vietnamese countryside, into a city and to a hospital with the entire right side of my body dripping blood was difficult, to say the least.  Beyond the trauma of the crash, the gloom of laying in my bed, mind swirling with semi-lucid thoughts as body melted into hard mattress for the Vietnamese painkillers taking effect all too slowly, adrift in a mindless sea of Pixar movies and Ken Burns Vietnam Documentary for days on end threw me for a loop as well.

But here I go monologuing.  Here I go spinning a “woe-is-me” tale of the hardships I face. 

Calm seas never a skilled sailor did make.  But neither did sailing headfirst into a storm and then feeling sorry for yourself and acting mopey while attempting to battle the twenty foot swells.  It is high time for me to take an assertive grasp of the helm, tighten the mainsail, baton down the hatches and sail myself confidently through this squall. 

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Half Way Home

This past weekend I had a panic attack.  Became short of breath,  Felt nauseous.  Briefly looked at flights home.

If all goes according to the plan I have made, I will be gone from the United States from January 8th to December 24th, 2018.  350 days.  Day 175, the half way point falls on exactly tomorrow, July 4th.  I thought it ironic, but a friend pointed out it’s just coincidental. 

I look back at all I have done in the almost six months I’ve been abroad.  Gotten a job teaching, made some friends, found somewhat a sense of home in an often abjectly foreign land.  Those were the struggles.  I think too of the great experiences I’ve had.  Watching the sun rise over Ankor Wat.  Exploring the mountainous far north with my parents.  Sharing in the beauty of much of this country with a best friend. 

The halfway point of any journey is a good time for some self reflection.  I have been thinking much about whether or not I will have the strength to finish the journey.  Sometimes, I am in doubt.  But then, if you had told me of the struggles I was to face the past six months, and asked me in January before I left the USA if I thought I could make it this far, I would’ve answered with a resounding hell no.  There have been points where I’ve had to muster the strength to continue on from something deep within me, something I had never tapped into (and never had to tap into) before this journey.  I am going to rely on that more and look to learn more about whatever that source of strength within me is, as I continue on this yearlong adventure.  This is the toughest thing I’ve ever done.  How lucky am I that the toughest undertaking of my life is moving to and experiencing and learning from the magic of this beautiful nation halfway around the world from all I’ve ever known?  What would it say if I quit half way through? As stated before, I need to learn to tap into my inner strength on my own and not just with the help of others. 

So I endeavor to continue to endeavor.  I need to take stock of and comfort in all that I’ve accomplished.  I need to excite and delight in all there is left to accomplish.  I need to develop and maintain a healthy balance of reaching for outside help when needed, and digging for the strength internally when possible. 

And hey, I’m halfway home.  Before I know it, I’ll be back stateside.  I’ll rejoice in the presence of friends and family.  I am particularly looking forward to Christmas with family and New Years Eve with friends.  And I know that in what will feel like the blink of an eye, I’ll be departing from Bangkok on the evening of December 23rd, flying through Tokyo and landing at JFK early afternoon of December 24th to be picked up by my mom, hopefully greeted by a car full of dogs and Vavala’s Bacon Egg and Cheeses. 

Between now and then, I’ll more opportunities to grow.  I know there will be more lows, and there will be more highs.  Growth will occur during both.  All I can hope for now is the strength, internal strength, to make the second half of my journey as great as can be.

How Lucky I Am..

Due to reasons you’ll find out about if you make it to the bottom of this blog, I have had hours upon hours this week to do nothing but write.  So here’s a brief 14,000 word synopsis of the adventure of a lifetime I took with my best friend Cailin.  But before that, here are two video highlights I have also made of the trip.  The first one is a friendship mix, second is adventure mix.



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 sixteen days in June, my best friend Cailin O’Brien came to Vietnam, and each moment during which we traveled across this country was so beautifully real and amazing.

On June 1st, I awoke at 7:30am with boundless excitement.  I spastically turned on my computer, Googled Cathay Pacific Flight CX5297, and was delightfully informed that the plane carrying Cailin had departed from Hong Kong and was bound for Hanoi.  Running some last minute errands, I remember the vibration in my pocket as I was driving down Dang Thai Mai, a street which cuts through the heart of Tay Ho.  Could it be true?  I swerved towards the curb, brought my motorbike to rest, and whipped out my phone.  She had landed!

About an hour later, a van pulled up in front of my house, and out came the most amazing and beautiful site I’ve seen in Southeast Asia: my best friend Cailin, in the flesh.  We brought her stuff inside.  My mind was having trouble processing equal parts joy at seeing her, excitement for our journey ahead, shock that she was actually here, and I was a little hungry as well.  I wrote in the last blog about the comfort a familiar face offers in a foreign land.  Seeing Cailin, hearing her voice, having her out in this remote land with me, I was overwhelmed with joy.  The first day she was battling severe jet lag (as there is a 10 hour time difference between LA and Hanoi), but she champed through it.  We ate Bun Cha, hung out on my roof, went on the ferris wheel, whacked some balls at the driving range, and had a delicious tapas dinner.  Already one of my best days in Vietnam, we retreated to bed, as our traveling was to begin early the next morning.


My first day in Vietnam, I remember being so thrown off by the time change I woke up at 4am and couldn’t go back to sleep.  Cailin had no such issue.  I had to shake her awake at 6:45 to finish getting ready to depart south into downtown Hanoi, towards a bus which would bring us to the island of Cat Ba.  The bus was cramped, my legs were squeezed, but my excitement for what lay ahead couldn’t be dampened by rain nor sleet nor uncomfortable seats.  At 11:30am, after a grueling 3.5 hour ride, we were dropped at the Central Backpackers Hostel on the island of Cat Ba.  At 100 square miles, the island which lies just south of Halong Bay is the biggest (by far) in the area, and almost half of the island is designated as a national park.  After a quick lunch at the hostel, Cailin and I rented a motorbike and our adventure, in earnest, began.  The motorbike was old, rickety, and struggled almost as much as I did up and down the hills in the national park, but got us from A to B.  From A to B we went, our hostel up to Cat Ba national park.  It was a scorching hot day, and Cailin was still extremely jet lagged, so naturally she raced her way up the mountain, bouncing from viewpoint to viewpoint with excitement and energy I don’t think I’ve ever experienced.  I was sweating more than I knew was possible, I honestly think I might’ve set a world record.  After much blood, sweat, and tears sweat, sweat, and more sweat, we made it to the first peak.  The view was unlike anything I’d ever seen.  Geographical landscapes like Cat Ba simply don’t occur in the Western hemisphere.  From the top of Ngu Lam Peak, the national park seemed to stretch boundlessly past the horizon.  We met some new friends at the first peak, shared in somelaughs and people were impressed by how sweaty I was.  After a breather, some of us moved towards the second peak.  Upon reaching it, our group which had been bursting with chatter at the first fell silent.  Everyone was in awe of the panoramic viewpoint.  It is one of those places so beautiful that to try to capture that beauty in words is to bastardize something so pure it escapes description.



After hiking back down and drinking about 3 liters of water, we hopped on our bike.  Though the popular beaches are to the south of the island, back closer to Cat Ba Town, Cailin and I decided to head to the northernmost point of the island, where there was a pier and we thought there might be beaches.  After driving thirty more minutes north through the scenic and beautiful national park, unsure at each hill if our motorbike would muster the strength to carry us up, we arrived to a pier.  Clearly done receiving ships for the day, it had turned into a magical concrete beach which we shared with just a couple of Vietnamese families.  We were told later the beaches to the south of the island were so covered with tourists you couldn’t see the sand, so I think watching a miraculous sunset with two new friends whom we had met on the peak, sharing the southernmost point of Halong Bay with a couple of Vietnamese families was certainly the move.  Children were jumping off the pier doing belly flop competitions, so naturally I had to give em the business.  Afterwards, I was trying to teach them what chicken fights are but they were much more interested in having me launch them off my shoulders.  As the sun was setting, we hopped back on our rickety motorbike and made the forty-five minute ride back to our hostel.  Driving in Hanoi is stressful and uniform: busy city streets and backed up traffic lights.  I fell in love with driving a motorbike out on Cat Ba, through the crisp sea air during the golden hour of dying light.  What a magical first day I had shared with my best friend on this breathtaking island.  Perhaps the most exciting part was it was still day one. 


Sunset on Cat Ba

Upon returning to our hostel, we freshened and rested up for an hour or so and headed back out.  Friends we had met earlier on the peak were gathering at a beach called Woodstock about 15 minutes northeast of our hostel.  After eating dinner at a delicious sweet potato restaurant, we met up with new friends and shared in a bonfire on the beach.  Though it was a clear night, my head felt in the clouds.  After feeling so far from home for so long, perhaps my favorite part of home had joined me in this intensely foreign land, and we had shared together a magical first day of a journey which had so many more adventures lying ahead.  Despite still fighting the jet lag, Cailin honestly had more energy than me after pouring immeasurable amounts of sweat all day.  Around midnight, we returned to our hostel.  As we sat by the pool, beneath a giant mango tree reflecting on a perfect day while lamenting our lack of snacks, the mango tree heeded our pleas and dropped the freshest, juiciest mango directly between us.  That night, despite being on a hard bed in a dorm room in a hostel, I got some of the best and most restful sleep I’ve gotten since moving to Vietnam. 

Day two on Cat Ba began with the same rush of excitement.  Upon waking up, it took me a second to get my bearings straight.  I’d been planning this trip and looking forward to it for so long I had to remind myself it had begun.  After breakfast, we requested a less rickety motorbike and headed out for the day.

Cailin had left her bathing suit at the northernmost part of the Island, so the first task of the day was to race back up to the pier from which we had watched sunset the night before with hopes it was still there.  It was during this 45 minute drive that Cailin got her first shot at driving the motorbike.  When my friend Harry came to visit in April and he had a chance to drive the motorbike around Hanoi a bit (sorry Harry kinda blowing up your spot on this one), I was underwhelmed with his abilities to say the least.  As for Cailin, I hoped for the best but prepared for the worst.  I was pleasantly shocked.  Though she had some trouble bringing the bike to speed without jerking forward, she was a natural from the first slope.  Granted, the scenic, rolling, isolated roads of Cat Ba are a much better place to learn how to drive a bike then the hectic streets of Hanoi.

Upon coming out of the national park into the more hilly, pot-holey part of the island, Cailin and I switched back driving and we zipped to the pier where Cailin’s bathing suit waited exactly where she had left It the day before.  We then spun around and headed back into the national park, turning into the first caves we saw.  At 6’3” with limited flexibility, I wouldn’t consider myself “built for caves”.  Cailin, at 5’4” raced ahead, while I turned on my speakers and started blasting the Indiana Jones theme song to give myself the gusto to dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge my way through the cave. 

After two incredible caves which seemed to go on forever but were both devoid of treasure, we went back to Woodstock to have lunch with some friends from the day before.  Let me tell you a simple fact about bananas in Southeast Asia: they are better.  That is not an opinion.  That is an objective fact.  So when I saw a banana smoothie on the lunch menu, I had to order it.  Our whole lunch quartet ended up ordering banana smoothies, and scarfing them down like the sweet nectar they were.  We chilled on the beach, reminisced on the adventure of yesterday and spoke excitedly of the adventures to come.  Throughout the trip, anytime I looked at Cailin’s face it provided me with a sense of comfort, but this early in the trip her face still launched feelings of excitement as well.  It was hard for me to sit still.  After some nice beach hangs, Cailin and I retreated to our hostel to pack up our stuff. 


Cheesin’ Hard after a successful first day and a half

We had a 3pm bus from Cat Ba to Ninh Binh, so naturally around 3:45pm our bus pulled up to the hostel and we piled on.  Meeting more new friends on the bus, we watched the movie “Up” and Cailin got a final nap overcoming the worst of the jet lag.  We arrived to Ninh Binh around 8pm, and to our hostel around 8:30.  We were staying at the Hoalu Eco Homestay, a place I had stayed twice before.  We ordered some bomb chicken sandwiches, and shared an amazing night just chatting by the pool.  Cailin updated me on her life, from what she had been studying in school to catching me up on amazing camping trips and music festivals she’d been to in California.   The weather was cool, the stars were out, and we walked around Tam Coc, enjoying each others company.  Me and Cailin was like peas and carrots.

The next morning we were up early.  The threat of rained loomed over us the entire trip, but reared it’s ugly head very few times.  It was honestly nice though, because a forecast of rain in the afternoon necessitates an early morning.  By 8:30am we were on the road to Hang Mua, a temple built onto one of the karst mountains in Tam Coc.  If I thought I had sweat a lot in Cat Ba, by God I was mistaken.  Kinda gross disclaimer, but to express how much I sweat here it goes: over the course of our day in Ninh Binh, I drank 4.5 liters of water and only peed one time.  The rest perspired off me.  Hang Mua was amazing however, though I did lose Cailin’s Nalgene (oops). 


Sleeping Dragon Mountain

The rest of the day was spent on a blazing hot tour of the Trang An Grottoes, the only reprieve from the sun coming the forms of caves woven beneath the massive stone pillars.  Some of these caves stretched over a hundred meters long and I had to continuously duck my head to avoid stalagmites (?) stretching down from overhead.  At one stop, I devoured several ice cream cones while Cailin met and began to play with two young boys (both of whom spoke better English than almost any of my students).  After an intense pseudo-duel with the children, we boarded our boat and headed back up the river to depart.  On our way back to the hostel, Cailin and I found an under-construction parking lot from which to watch the most stunning landscape sunset I had ever seen.  I found it ironic, as for the first several days I couldn’t get out of my head the Counting Crows classic song “Big Yellow Taxi”, who’s chorus chants over and over again “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot…”.  The constructors of Ninh Binh had clearly paved this sliver of paradise and were in the midst of erecting said parking lot, but the magic and beauty of the lands had not forsaken the spot. (I’ve since been informed “Big Yellow Taxi” is a Joni Mitchell song but I had the Counting Crows version stuck in my head).



After returning to our hotel, I ordered one more chicken sandwich and Cailin went and got food from the hostel next door before we departed for the train station.  That evening was to be spent on an overnight train scheduled to drop us in Hue, Vietnam early the following morning.  Ninh Binh was the furthest south I’d been in Vietnam, from here on out everything was to be as new to me as it was to Cailin.  Though the beds were not built for a 6’3” man, I learned later in the trip I should’ve been more content with the sleeping arrangements that evening.  Cailin and I watched Tarzan and Mulan before she slept and I tossed uncomfortably, the motion of the train doing nothing to assuage my overly active acid reflux.  The train begrudgingly pulled into Hue and dropped us off around 8:45am.  We quickly went and dropped our stuff at a hotel, rented a motorbike, and were on our way.


First stop, as on most days, was coffee.  Cailin so loved the deep and bitter and dark coffee the Vietnamese dish out.  Prescribed Focalin daily, I needed none so each morning I would just have water unless a particularly delicious looking fruit smoothie caught my attention. 

Friends in Hanoi had told me of an abandoned Waterpark in Hue which was a must-see attraction, so after coffee we plugged where we thought it would be into Google Maps and were on our way.  On the way, just about a minute after I had explained to Cailin how neither of our blinkers worked, a woman pulled up alongside us and told us our right blinker was on.  Oops.  She asked where we were going, and told us of military guards at the Water Park.  We followed her to a back entrance, still guarded by the military.  She went and spoke to them, and gave them what amounted to a couple US dollars, and it was thus that Cailin and I smuggled ourselves into a waterpark in Hue under the very noses of the Vietnamese Military.  The waterpark had been in operation from 2004 until 2013, but looked and felt though it had been abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster.  It was still very cool to sneak around an abandoned Vietnamese Waterpark. 


Oh no nothing no big deal just a huge dragon head at abandoned water park

After offering our guide something for her troubles, we departed back towards the town of Hue to visit the Imperial City.  Hue was the capital of Ancient Vietnam, before the mid-19th century when the French came, in the time of the Hung Kings.  Their imperial city, at least by the looks of it, surpassed the ground coverage of Angkor Wat, though It lacked an impressive moat and couldn’t combat with the architectural marvel of the Cambodian ancient temple, it was still very impressive.  Call me a dumb American, but I have enough trouble remembering the 45 Presidents our relatively young nation has had. I admit not to be interested in the 17th Nguyen Thin emperor from the seventh century and his plan to build better irrigation in the Danang Valley.  There were cool statues and flags around the grounds, however.

After sharing some tea and a lovely walk along the riverbank, Cailin and I were debating what we should do for sunset and for the evening when the answer walked right up to us.  More specifically, a group of college students studying either medicine or law at the University in Hue asked us if we would like to talk for a while about whatever just so they could practice their English.  We quickly became a roadside attraction, I felt like an old wiseman with stories to tell whom the village children can’t help but stop and listen once their deep in a tale.  The conversations ended up lasting several hours, and I learned fascinating things about the Vietnamese economy and how it’s too dependent on foreign investment. We compared the patriotisms of our two countries, their trajectory, their current positions.  It was truly fascinating to get to talk to college students, with informed opinions and near fluent English, about all these things I had wondered for so long.  Long after the sun at set, one student named Nem invited us to a local chicken joint.  There, we were treated to a full buffet of delicious chicken, fish, sticky rice, regular rice, noodles, and peanuts.  I discovered a new jewel of Vietnamese cuisine, sticky rice dipped in crushed up peanuts.  Dear Father, take my site but not my tastebuds, for I have been saved.  Cailin and I, though neither wanted to, tried fish liver exclusively so the other would have to do it in her case, an exclusively because she had done it and would make fun of me if I didn’t in my case.


Dinner with Nem

Sometimes when I speak, I don’t know why but I think in my head I can explain things better than friends or family who are actually speaking.  I annoy myself and others by unintentionally spurting what I call “sentence synopsis” after someone is done talking (or in the middle of while they’re talking), when I restate what I think they were trying to say in a way which is easier for me to understand, which I would be just as well served to simply think in my head.  I have become more egregiously guilty of talking for others in scenarios like this one, where I find myself better able to express to a Vietnamese person who had learned English, because I work with kids who are learning English every day.  As a result, there were points throughout dinner when I cut Cailin off or spoke for her.  I do this often, but not many people care enough or are confident enough in their friendship with me to call me out on it.  Cailin did, and reminded me that I need to mind myself to let others speak for themselves.  For that, I am thankful.

The next day, June 6, was perhaps the highlight of the trip for me.  We woke up early in Hue and were greeted at our hostel by Ngyuen, who loaded our two bags up on the back of his motorbike while Cailin and I hopped onto a second motorbike, and we took off south for the famed Hai Van Pass.  Our route would eventually end some 160 kilometer to the south in the Ancient City of Hoi An.  As we left Hue, I could see in the distance the mountains abutting the coast which made up the Hai Van Pass growing larger.  We drove along a lagoon full of house boats, and our guide explained to us how before the war such a large percentage of the Vietnamese population lived not on the land but rather floating just off of it.  We continued another thirty minutes of so until we reached the piedmonts of the Hai Van Pass.  Before traversing such treacherous terrain, we needed a beach retreat.  Stopping at Loi Cai Beach, Cailin and I were treated to basically a private resort.  We swam in the Pacific Ocean, which we had both done before, just never the Western Coast of it. 

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Album Dropping This July

We drank coconuts and had a photoshoot and didn’t adequately dry our bums from swimming before climbing back onto the motorbike to do the pass.  Cailin drove the winding, approximately ten kilometer road up to the top of the pass, where an old French watchtower from Imperial Times dwarves an American Octagon from later Imperial Times.  The views were stunning.  I couldn’t decide what I was enjoying more, the view or the company.  It was a good indecision.


Hai Van Pass with my good friend

I drove us down the pass and though the third largest city in Vietnam, the coastal port of Danang.  We stopped for coffee along the riverbank, and I Googled the hotel we would be staying at in two nights time and found it was right around the corner.  Nice area, I thought to myself.  After finishing coffee, we boarded our bikes and traversed the coolest bridge I had ever been on.  In America, when I say “cool bridge” you may think of a nice rock song or maybe a futuristic suspension bridge.  The bridge in Danang was literally built to look like a dragon.  On Saturday nights, it sprays fire and water.  It is an embodiment of the culture in the infrastructure the likes of which we do not dare to attempt in the United States.  There were several other, traditionally “cool” bridges as well.

We continued south, past resort after resort for what stretched on for miles.  Cailin and I wondered how many millions of tourists must be flocking to suburban Danang to make all these results economically viable.  I’ll leave that to minds better than me.  We visited Marble Mountains, which were very similar to the formations we had seen in Ninh Binh just days prior, but more touristy.  Cailin was still struggling with the fact that she couldn’t purchase a souvenir from every nice saleswoman who invited her, though she did find some jewels amongst the rough.  We hopped back on the bike to finish the journey into Hoi An.

We stayed at DK’s Hotel in Hoi An, by recommendation of my good friend Westley Wilson who had travel in the area a year prior.  They had a pool basketball hoop, I offer it a ringing endorsement as well.  Despite having the option to motorbike, we employed our feet and began wandering this enchanting seaside town.  Hoi An prides itself on being “the best place in Southeast Asia to get a suit tailored”, and this pride shone brightly as nearly every other shop was a tailor.  We were beckoned and coaxed by bespokesmen and couturiers.  Holding a tight clenched fist around my wallet in a battle of wills not to let the bills spill forward like a river onto the streets and into shops of Hoi An, I waited patiently for Cailin to buy some great linen clothing.  We walked several blocks down to the riverbank, in search of a good place to watch the sunset.  We’d have had trouble finding a bad spot.  As we sauntered down the riverside, passing each open door we were offered glimpses into the little worlds the locals were living.  Some sat around a low table sharing tea.  Some houses blared State TV or Vietnamese cartoons.  Children delighted in waving to us as we strolled by.  An adorable puppy viciously attacked Cailin’s leg with such textbook form I would’ve sworn he was straight out of the K9 Academy, but all the little guy wanted was some scritches. 


A very good doggie

Cailin and I found a peaceful spot out on an abandoned little dock through a path of mango trees from which to watch the sun slowly fade into the June evening.  Across the river, the Hoi An Night Market was slowly beginning to arouse from it’s daytime slumber.  Hoi An is known as “The City of Lanterns”, and though I had seen many during the day, it became clear as darkness crept in that this town would not go quietly into that dark night.  Hundreds if not thousands of lanterns illuminated themselves, filling the river, overhanging shops and providing cover along walking streets.  Trees danced with glistening lights.  The streets were flooded with tourists and locals alike, bouncing from trinket shop to hawker stall and so full of joy and life.  I walked around dumbfounded, racking my brain for a word which could aptly describe the beauty and charm of this town.  “Chill”, I thought to myself, “very chill indeed.”


Very Chill Indeed

Hunger began to rumble in my belly, it was time for dinner.  After checking out a “secret hidden” restaurant who’s only real secret is they kept their ludicrous prices off the internet menu, Cailin and I stumbled into another hidden jewel of Vietnam.  After my first attempt to find “GOOGLE: Best rooftop restaurant Hoi An” had brought us to a random street corner, my second attempt led us to what looked to be just a souvenir shop.  We were invited inside, lead up two flights of stairs, and emerged onto our own private rooftop dinner for two.  The glow of the lanterns from the streets illuminated the surrounding buildings.  Lanterns and lights hung from every available piece of foliage or jutting piece of architecture on the roof.  In the distance, a storm of heat lightening randomly ignited the sky.  We arrived to dinner around 8:15pm, which I guess must’ve been early for Hoi An because we had the place to ourselves for around 45 minutes.  Cailin, a more adventurous and curious spirit than I, endeavored to absorb as much of the Vietnamese language as she could during her visit.  Together, we shared a lovely evening dining atop the most charming town I’ve ever been to, and our side course was a heavy helping of Vietnamese lessons.  Cailin combed through the menu with our waitress, a student named Quyeen.  When our food arrived, Cailin needed to learn the vocabulary for “good”, “delicious”, and “yum” (the third is universal language, I think).  Much of our conversation at this dinner revolved around how incredible the restaurant was and how entrancing the town was. 


The dinner menu was clearly more exciting than the lightening display in the background.

After dinner, we found ourselves again wandering the winsome winding ways of Hoi An, eventually returning to the main riverfront market.  We flagged down a gondola and rode along the river.  Floating alongside us were thousands of lanterns, little stars which seemed to have gently drifted down from the night sky and say softly on the lake.  But this town was not all sunshine and daisies, it was fun too.  After departing the boat, we stumbled upon a crowd.  Deciding to check it out, Cailin and I stumbled upon the most exciting and exhilarating street dance performance either of us had ever had the pleasure of witnessing.  As Cailin whispered to me at the time, it was clear that these kids (I’d say the average age was less than 21) were not dancing to impress tourists or earn their donations, they were rather dancing to have fun.  They laughed and messed up and attempted moves I didn’t know possible.  The musical stylings ranged from K-pop to hardcore Chinese electric beats to the latest trap from ASAP Mob to West Coast Classics from Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.  The group of dozen or so dancers took turns soloing, dancing in pairs, and dancing in groups.  Everyone of them poured sweat from their brows but gleamed massive smiles from their faces.  Cailin got so into it she was hard pressed not to join in, I was content sitting on the side with little risk of making a fool of myself.  We must’ve watched these carefree dancers live out the spirit at the heart of “Footloose” for almost an hour.  I was cracking up the whole time.

Once the final bow had been taken, Cailin and I continued our stroll along the riverbank, finding ourselves at the most ridiculous bar I’d ever been to.  “The Mr. Bean Bar” in Hoi An is dedicated exclusively to the beloved British actor.  The entire interior consists of iconic photoshops of celebrities – with Mr. Bean’s face crudely pasted over them.

On our walk back to DK’s Hotel, the skies opened up.  To say it was raining cats and dogs would leave out the rest of the animal kingdom.  We huddled under an overhang in front of a pagoda, wondering how we were going to make it the remaining 800 meters to the hostel, when a man driving around on his motorbike selling ponchos for $1 came to our rescue.  We waded the rest of the way back, and most of my clothes were drenched but all electronics and souls remained untouched and unaffected by the rain. 

Our travel schedule was aggressive.  For her first dozen nights in Vietnam, Cailin and I didn’t spend two nights in a row, in the same place, once.  We hit basically a town per day on our trek down Vietnam.  For this reason, we knew each day we had just that limited amount of time to see as much as we could.  When we woke up in Hoi An, we were quick to depart for a “cooking class” which was so much more.  Departing around 8 am, we first visited a bustling morning market where the freshest crops and meats I’d ever seen burst from stalls which were crammed up against one another, spilling out into the street.  Afterwards, we hopped on a boat and took a cruise down the scenic Hoi An River, until we reached the part of the trip for which I was most excited.  Thung Chai, “Basket Boats” are an invention from the French Colonial era.  The story goes that once they began occupying the country, the French Imperialists levied heavy taxes on everything – including boat ownership.  Poor countryside fisherman who could not afford to pay such a tax came up with an ingenious solution: invent a new type of boat the French couldn’t tax, due to the fact that they were not defined as boats but rather giant baskets.  Made by tightly weaving bamboo and covering them with coconut oil and tar, these circular floating devices are still prominent to this day. 


Thung Chai with the wildest party animal on the Hoi An River

We hopped in one, and were rowed into a thicket of mangrove to do some crab fishing.  While the crab fishing was fun, the party started as we unpeeled from the shoreline and our captain shocked us by cranking up a speaker on the floor of the basket which I had not seen, and blasting rave music.  We were one of maybe eight or ten boats, but I was not shocked in the slightest that Cailin and I had found ourselves at the center of the coconut boat crab excursion techno rave festival of Central Vietnam 2018.  After working up a healthy appetite dancing til I poured sweat (I was actually pouring sweat long before I started dancing, but shhhhh), we returned to shore for the titular cooking class of the tour.  I don’t remember what we made and I don’t remember how we made it, but it was goooooooood.  The main thing that sticks out in my memory is the creative uses the Vietnamese find for peanuts.  Such an underutilized fruit in America, eaten exclusively in whole, sauce, or butter form, I distinctly remember the head chef taking extreme authorial liberties with the food, and it paying off in spades.  Though I enjoyed my escapade into authentic Vietnamese cooking, it’s gonna take a couple of more lessons before Chef Thatch whips out any exotic dishes rather than a classic American sirloin.

We returned to DK’s Hotel, and then resultant of Cailin’s infatuation with the linen pants she had bought the day before (admittedly they did look great on her and also looked comfier than any item of clothing I’ve ever had the privilege of wearing), returned to the store down the street where she had bought those so she could stock up on more.  After another riverside walk, we elected to rent a motorbike and drive West, inland, chasing a better view of the sunset.  We drove for about 40 minutes, past the major North-South Highway of Vietnam, the QL1A.  I couldn’t point to where we ended up on a map, but we found ourselves on a staircase which sloped directly into a river.  Across the river, a tangerine sky in the distance battled with alabaster clouds attempting to obscure the magnificent sunset.  We chatted and waited to see which would win, the sun or the clouds. 


Say what you will about Cailin O’Brien, but you cannot deny that she has great posture

Just as it looked as though the sun was going to emerge victorious, we heard thunder in the distance.   With the full knowledge from the night before of how quickly the skies could go from quiet to pounding rain, we fled back to Hoi An, catching unbelievable glimpses of a fading marmalade sky whenever the tree line dipped or we crossed a river.  I’m not sure how, but we returned to DK’s Hotel dry just as the day’s light slipped away.  We thanked them for their hospitality, and departed on a 45 minute taxi ride back up the coast to the third largest city in Vietnam, Danang.

We arrived to “The City of Bridges” probably around 7 or 7:15.  In the distance stood a giant ferris wheel which caught both of our eyes.  Quickly checking into our hotel and renting a motorbike, we weaved through the first real traffic I’d seen in nearly a week til we reached the Amusement Park, which unlike the one in Hanoi sold an expensive ticket to access all the rides rather than cheap tickets to the individual rides.  Oh well, can’t win em all.

We remounted the motorbike and headed south, back in the direction of our hotel.  Maybe the fatigue of traveling so aggressively was beginning to get to us (Cailin), or it was the disappointment for not getting to ride the ferris wheel (me), but we snippily debated where to get dinner.  After chasing several options into the ground and driving around for a while, we found a nice spot on the river, just doors down from our hotel.  I ordered pesto pasta and french fries. I have no shame about it.  I had been very (ehhh pretty) good about eating exploratory and exciting and local food so far on the trip.  After dinner, a simple walk along the riverbank made it clear why this was known as “The City of Bridges”.  Cut at it’s center by the Han River, this city was interwoven by seven bridges connecting different districts.  One bridge, as mentioned earlier, resembled a dragon, complete with fire breathing displays once per week. 


Why can’t we have stuff like this in the USA?

Another was so luminescent it looked from the reflection as though a firework display were going on.  Each bridge was captivating and beautiful.  Cailin and I walked along the riverbank for what must’ve been a couple hours.  We stumbled upon two different galleries of feminine marble statues ranging from so abstract they might as well be a Rorschach Test to works so detailed they resembled those of Renascence carvers.  Around midnight, the lights of the bridges turned off, the show was over, we returned to our hotel to watch Spongebob.

Cailin and I benefited greatly from the forecast incorrectly calling for rain often on our trip, due to the fact that we were spurred out the door early in the morning on many occasions by threat of afternoon rain which often never came.  We left our hotel in Danang by 7:30 in the morning, departing up to Son Tra Mountain, “Monkey Mountain” to the northeast of the city, back closer to the Hai Van Pass we had traversed several days earlier.  We drove through amazing coastal roads with ocean and sea on one side, and towering hills racing skyward on the other.  Our little motorbike managed to putter us up the 850 meters to the summit.  The forecast could not have been more wrong.  Beautiful blue skies stretched over the city lying clearly just several miles away, the mountains which make up the beginnings of the central highlands visible as day in the extreme distance.  Mountains dotted the coastline, some just patches of sand but some so packed with trees I couldn’t help but giggle at the site of them, imaging all the trees as some guy named Marv jockeying for room on an overcrowded subway.  In our haste to reach the summit before the rains that never came, we (especially Cailin) had grown quite hungry.  After a healthy breakfast of amazing view with a side of bottled water, we departed down the mountain in search of something with more sustenance. 


Finally found a worthy checkers opponent on the summit of Son Tra.  We wanted to play Catan instead, but couldn’t find a fourth.

The treacherous back road around the Eastern side of the mountainous peninsula had been our path of ascension, and now we descended on the Western side, in full view of the city of Danang the entire time.  After being turned away at the Intercontinental (which, according to Google costs more money to stay at one night than I spent on this entire trip), we found ourselves well received for the time being at the Son Tra Resort.  I ordered a club sandwich and Cailin got the buffet.  It was a bit pricy, but the meal included access to a private beach which all the other guests had decided not to use.  After the best breakfast I’ve had in Southeast Asia, Cailin and I decided this would be a nice spot to spend the afternoon, so long as the rains stayed away.  We went back into Danang, checked out of our hotel, left our stuff behind the counter, and returned to the private mountain resort to rent kayaks and spend the afternoon lounging.  Oh how young and foolish we were.


One of the most delicious Club Sandwiches I’ve ever had

Upon returning to Son Tra Resort, we rented a kayak and took to the high seas (the South China Sea, to be exact).  For about half an hour, we paddled around and swam in the jade water with Son Tra Mountain to our right and Danang just down the coast on our left.  The sun beat down mercilessly, but the water was cool and brackish and refreshing. 

It’s funny, no matter how old Cailin and I get we find ways to get ourselves into stupid situations as a result of silly decisions.  Cailin was standing on the kayak holding a paddle, and I was swimming.  I swam up to the kayak and challenged her to stay balanced while I shook.  The instant she agreed, I flung the kayak as hard as I could to the right, sending her crashing to the left.  Victory was sweet but also short lived.  She returned to the surface saying she had accidentally dropped the paddle.  We both dove down looking for it, but our searches were in vain.  Oh well, we thought, how much could they charge us for an old rusty paddle?  We hung out on the kayak a bit more, until the trees began to bend from the wind and we made our way to shore.  The resort quickly noticed the missing paddle, and informed us that we would have to pay the equivalent of $65 US to replace the paddle.  Keep in mind, we had paid about a dollar between the two of us for the hour long kayak rental.  I’ve seen Cailin take on many personas before, but the jaded customer with a chip on her shoulder was one I’d never seen. She played it well.  After about an hour of arguing, attempting to order another paddle via Amazon, attempting to purchase a paddle from a local sporting goods store, and just general bullshit we paid around $50 for the paddle and left.  Good breakfast, but good riddance.

The skies were about to open up, and we were hungry again.  I had really wanted the calamari at Son Tra Resort, but we were no longer welcome guests.  We went next door to a place where they spoke exclusively Vietnamese.  I translated “deep fried squid” via Google and showed it to our waiter, asking “Ten tien?” meaning “How much?”.  He held up five fingers on one hand, and four on the other.  90,000 dong, I thought to myself, a little less than 5 dollars for a plate full of deep fried squid.  Not a bad deal at all.  Cailin and I sat at a dock overlooking the bay trying to dismiss the bullshit which had just happened at Son Tra Resort.  After what felt like an hour (impatience is another flaw of mine which Cailin pointed out on the trip upon which I am working), a man brought a heaping pile of grilled shrimp covered in chili flakes to the table.  It is no secret that I am not an adventurous eater, but a realm into which I will not cross is spicy.  Cailin loved it.  Objectively, it was very good squid.  For the first time in my life, I couldn’t taste only the burning sensation which lit my mouth on fire, though that was still the overwhelming takeaway.  I was able to also taste the savory and delectable squid taste hiding behind the firewall.  I semi-enjoyed about a dozen or so of the forty-ish squid which had been placed in front of me.  Cailin helped herself to a bakers dozen or so as well.  I went up to pay, and quickly realized the “four” and “five” fingers the waiter had held up meant not 90,000 dong, but rather 450,000.  Normally this wouldn’t be the end of the world, but after having spent 600,000 on some dumb BS with the paddle not an hour and a half earlier, this hurt the pockets.


Expensive squid and spicy, but good nonetheless.

Dejected, upset and eager to stop using my money as metaphorical toilet paper, we began to retreat towards Danang. On our way back we stopped by the Linh Ung Pagoda, with a statue of the Lady Buddha which stretched 67 meters skyward.  The surrounding grounds were gorgeously kept and serene.  From any elevated point, Danang made herself clear in the distance.   Cailin and I asked two locals to take a picture of us, but they were so drunk they nearly dropped the camera and couldn’t figure out where any buttons where, much less which buttons to press.  A tall Eastern European man served as a better photographer. 


I’m almost as tall as the 67 meter tall statue.  Cailin for scale.

After enjoying the views and walking around the grounds, we returned to Danang, made a grocery store stop, grabbed our bags from the hotel and made our way towards the train station.  Ahead of us sat a twelve hour train ride down the coast to Nha Trang.  Though on most parts I think I did a good job of planning this trip, in this instance I had left booking this train til after all the beds had been sold out, so Cailin and I would make the ride in the upright position.  After some delicious Bahn Mi’s at the train station, we boarded the train, fought over the armrest, watched Wreck-It Ralph, and attempted to sleep.


I awoke at around 2:30 or 3 in the morning to some terrible news.  I read of one of my favorite television personalities, Anthony Bourdain’s, untimely death in France.  Bourdain was not just one of my favorite television hosts, he was one of my favorite writers.  He is a given inclusion on any list of three people throughout history you’d want to dine with.  Beyond his books, his narration, his story telling ability, he has a poetic quality to anything he says.  The episode of No Reservations which he filmed in Vietnam, portraying Hanoi’s chaotic streets and him cracking a 25 cent beer with Obama was a large reason I chose the city as the place to spend a year.  I was devastated by both the loss and the manner in which he had gone.  Rest in peace.  That’s all I have to say about that.

When we arrived in Nha Trang at 7:15am, I was cranky for a number of reasons.  Three hours of sleep (while sitting up), sadness, and just overwhelming fatigue from traveling so aggressively was beginning to overwhelm me.  With an empty stomach, I was a nightmare.  There are times when I know I’m being annoying or being a dick, and I am in such a bad mood that I double down as opposed to work to bring myself into a calmer state.  The morning of June 9th was one of those instances.  I stamped and clomped around the streets of Nha Trang.  We dropped our stuff at our hotel, and I continued to pout as we walked along the beach looking for food.  Finally, Cailin insisted I stop being such a princess and we found a buffet place that looked passable even to my ill-tempered disposition.  After stuffing myself with all you can eat bacon and muffins and drinking several tall glasses of orange juice, I began to feel more myself. 

Cailin had done some research and discovered that just 40 minutes up the same QL1A highway we had driven by some six hundred kilometers north near Hoi An were the Ba Ho Waterfalls.  After returning to the hotel and renting a motorbike, we departed up the scenic coastline, past tiny fishing villages and colorful Buddhist pagodas.  After around 35 minutes on paved highway, we bounced along a bumpy dirt road for fifteen minutes or so before arriving at a small parking lot with just a dozen or so motorbikes, and a small ticket booth up the way. 

I have been eating healthier in Southeast Asia than my American diet, and have been steadily losing a little bit of weight since I got here.  On this trip however, I shed pounds like at no point in my life since my appendectomy.  Reason being I would sweat about three gallons of water each hike we went on.  Cailin, a seasoned camper and California wilderness veteran pushed the pace while I wheezed and heaved my way up each climb or cave we found ourselves at, unsure if my heart or legs would give out first.   At Ba Ho, we climbed a steady incline with occasional stairs for about an hour through the humid 90 degree heat, before reaching a part where the path broke down and we had to climb over and around giant boulders to continue our ascent.  After another 20 minutes of bouldering, we arrived at the first waterfall.  Those going to Ba Ho Waterfalls in search of cascading rapids pouring forward would be disappointed.  Those in search of gentle rapids with some plunges more akin to springs would find themselves in heaven.  After climbing to the top of the four spring pools, I peeled off my shirt which had glued itself to my moist skin and flopped into the salvation-offering water.  Cailin joined me briefly, but was not a fan of the tiny river fish which peck and pinch gently at the legs.  After enjoying a while up at what amounted to our own private spring, we began to make our way back down the falls.  I had been upset at the lack of cliff jumping, but Cailin found a perch about five meters high from which the water looked deep.  A security guard beckoning us forward was the only motivation needed, we both heaved ourselves from the cliff and into the cooling waters below.  I threw myself off twice more, the last time doing a pencil dive – trying to touch the bottom.  My foot pushed off a firm boulder I would estimate was around 10 feet below the surface.  Further down at the lowest spring, we found a makeshift tiny rope-swing.  I went twice, belly flopping on the first attempt but entering the water as graceful as a majestic dolphin on my second go.  Cailin snapped the branch which formed the handlebar of the rope swing on her first go.  I knew I’d been losing weight from all the hiking, but damn, guess I’d really shed some pounds.


Are you not entertained?? You must be if you’ve kept reading this long.

On our way back down the mountain, near the peak we found an old lady selling massive bottles of water and freshly sliced watermelon.  I delighted in both, and they made the trek back down the mountain manageable.  We hopped back on the motorbike and sped southward towards Nha Trang, stopping at some more amazing pagodas before returning to our hotel.  Cailin, the ever vigilant researcher, found the best place in Nha Trang to watch the sunset, a bar on 43rd floor of the Havana Nha Trang hotel called Sky Light.  This was to be our first “ball out” meal.  I dressed to the nines, donned my “U.S. Embassy – Ha Noi, Viet Nam” polo and nice teal khaki shorts.  Cailin went with a more casual but equally dashing linen green shirt and cut off jean shorts.  We walked for a kilometer along the beach before reaching the hotel.  After paying the entrance fee, we ascended to the roof and were greeted by one of the nicest, most absurd places I had ever been to.

We had 360 degree views of the surrounding land and ocean scape.  Directly east lay the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean, a little bit east of directly south, the Vietnamese Disney Land, known as “VinPearl” began to sparkle with artificial light as the day faded.  To the west, forty three stories below us lay the city of Nha Trang, home to about half a million people.  Amongst the hotels and office buildings were peppered parks and statues.  A particularly large marble statue of a meditating Buddha caught my eye.  Beyond the city rose the Annamite Mountains, into which we were going to drive the following day.  The setting sun cast such colors at the sky as to look though it had been splattered by a professional artist.  The rooftop had a “skywalk”, where you walk out onto reinforced windows, trusting they will not crack and send you plummeting.  The view and company and everything was exceptional and perfect. 


Not a bad spot for sunset or for dinner.  Company was alright as well, can’t complain.

We didn’t have to travel far for dinner.  Just one floor below (or maybe on the other side of the building, I don’t recall perfectly) was the Chef’s Club Restaurant.  Though a bit pricy, for the view (and our first “ball out” dinner), we decided it was worth it.    I ordered the Ginger Chicken Sausage and Rice Skillet.  What they brought out blew me away.  All things considered, the view, the food, and the day we had had, this dinner in Nha Trang contends strongly for my favorite dinner of the trip.  The thing that pushed it over the top was a man in a giant Mr. Minion costume running around, messing with bar patrons and diners alike.  I suddenly realized what places like The Standard in New York were missing.  Giant plush mascots running around the nicest rooftop bars in the states.  Patent pending.IMG_0210.JPG

Mid Peak

After dinner, we walked back up the beach and wanted to go to a beach party, but the cover was too expensive.  We were ballers on a budget.  We returned to our hotel, for we had another big drive the next day.

June 10th was the day of our second big drive, into the Annamite Mountain Range, up to the city of Da Lat, a former vacation town during French colonial times.  Known by many names, “The Honeymoon City”, “The City of Flowers”, “City of A Thousand Pine Trees”, and “City of Eternal Spring”.  Our drive first took us past a protest in the streets of Nha Trang, where locals were objecting runaway foreign investments from China, and in larger just demonstrating against Vietnam’s international policies regarding their massive Northern neighbor. It was very interesting to see a cheerful protest about such an issue of national importance, if not a little frightening to the American movie addict in me to see communist flags waving in the streets. 

As we drove through the countryside, I was astounded by how familiar the landscape felt, due to it’s prominence in movies I’d seen growing up.  It feels a shame that such a beautiful pasture leading towards the foothills of a beautiful mountain range would beckon in my head a pounding rendition of “Fortunate Son” and call to my eyes choppers so clear I could’ve sworn they where there.  We drove about 30 kilometers before stopping just at the base of the range for coffee, fresh mangos and french fries.  We then began the trek up into the mountains.

Cailin and I traded driver and passenger often on the 100 kilometer ride from the base of the mountain into Dalat.  The views were spectacular.  We had started the day in somewhere like coastal California but by early afternoon found ourselves somewhere more reminiscent of enchanted New England spring.  Some of the only rain we weathered all trip was that which we chased up to the mountain peaks.  We drove past acres and acres of rolling hills all covered in tarp, which we were told was where they grow the countless flowers destined for Dalat’s marketplace.  Our drive also took us past coffee plantations, maize fields, cucumber farms and banana trees.  My tiny speakers pounded out a playlist I’d curated and Cailin had supplemented for the drive, and we goofily shouted along to “500 Miles” by The Proclaimers. 


Not bad views from the QL27C

Upon pulling into Dalat, we witnessed a drunk man swerve across the street and crash head on into a bus.  Our guide assured us he was okay as we drove away, just passed out wasted and probably concussed, and I believed him, but we didn’t stick around to find out.  As rattled as I was, Cailin was more so.  Thank goodness that the upwards of 20 hours on motorbikes we had spent on the trip were in the past, we had 15 minutes more to reach our Dalat accommodations and then we were motorbike free for the rest of the trip.

Upon arriving in Dalat in late afternoon, we freshened up and headed to a coffee shop Cailin had researched.  I took us on a wrong turn to the far side of the lake and it began to rain.  Oops.  We trudged through the storm and finally reached the shop.  While at this spot, Cailin and I had a lengthy discussion about the difficulties I’ve been facing in Southeast Asia, how remote I feel and how often I get those feelings.  Some day soon Dr. O’Brien is going to make a fantastic therapist.  In around in hour she had me blabbering about my troubles and fears which I hadn’t even admitted to myself for several months.  The catharsis of having a best friend in this remote part of the world with me, listening to and caring about my struggle and helping me out in such a way was indescribable.

After a cleansing coffee we made for the Dalat market for dinner.  The rain had pretty much stopped, a light drizzle at most.  The market was teeming with life and food and souvenirs and a thrift shop.  Cailin got an awesome jacket and I got a Hammer raincoat.  I also got a delicious Bahn Mi and a kebab and Cailin got the famous Dalat Pizza, of which I had a bite and it was certainly not pizza in the traditional sense of the word, but salivating nonetheless.  Afterwards, we got “kem”, ice cream flash frozen and rolled up.  I got chocolate, Cailin got chocolate mixed with bananas.  We went bite for bite.  Hers was better.


Mmmmm…. Dalat Pizza

After intentionally walking around the lake a little bit this time, not as a result of a wrong turn, we returned to our hotel.


Crusin’ on my scraper bike

The next day was perhaps the most exciting of our trip.  The morning was all good and fun.  We visited the Elephant Waterfalls, an impressively large cascade well to the south of Dalat.  We went to a silk factory and found out that silk worms can poop in excess of 1 kilometer of silk per day.  We went to a Weasel coffee farm and found something I thought didn’t exist: coffee too strong for Cailin O’Brien.  By this point in the trip I knew how Cailin liked her coffee: “Black.  No milk.  No cream.  No sugar.  No straw.”  Through yellowed teeth after her first sip of “Weasel Diesel”, she sheepishly admitted she may have found coffee too bitter even for her.


“Wait… is that a real snake??”

For lunch, we were whisked to a cozy house in the middle of Dalat, where a Vietnamese woman made us perhaps the best chicken I’ve ever had the privilege of eating.  We then donned wet suits and departed for the Datanla Waterfalls just south of the city.  We were to take a crash course in canyoning, and then repel down three waterfalls measuring 12, 14, and 18 meters high.  I thought I was going to have a heart attack.  We tied ourselves to some trees to practice for about five minutes, my legs were shaking so violently I struggled to stay upright.  The tour guide found it hilarious, as did Cailin to a degree.  She naturally went first over the first waterfall “Big Boy”, the 18 meter one.  After she disappeared over the edge, I realized I’d never live it down if I didn’t go too.  I honestly don’t recall repelling down the first waterfall.  All I can remember was how violently my legs were shaking as I lowered myself into the water at the bottom.  After the adrenaline had worn off slightly, I realized that, though scary, it was no insurmountable task and I had psyched myself out way too much.  My favorite part of the day came when we reached the seven and eleven meter cliff jumps.  After launching myself of the lower one, I raced back up and leapt from the higher one twice more.  I don’t know why, but it was easy for me to hurl myself from an 11 meter cliff with no harness or safety measures of any kind, but one of the most daunting things I’ve ever done backing over an 18 meter cliff strapped to a professional climber.  Cailin was hesitant to do the larger jump, but willed herself off.  Our guide did a long swooping backflip off the lower cliff.  We continued down, repelled down a couple more waterfalls and trekked several kilometers out of the jungle. 

After drying off, changing clothes behind that tree over there and drinking some tea, the driver took us to the Dalat bus station, where we boarded a coach bound for Saigon.  However, we were not to make the full trek. We got dropped off about 3.5 hours into the 7 hour journey, at Kilometer 142 on the QL20, where a cab was waiting to take us into Cat Tien National Park.

Arriving to an orchestra of jungle sounds, unsure if we were hearing birds or monkeys or both or neither, we checked into the Green Bamboo Lodge.  We had Bungalow 1A all to ourselves.  We shared a quick meal on our porch and went down to look at the river, until Cailin pondered if there were any crocs and I fled back to our room before she had finished her thought. 

The next day, I’ll admit, I messed up a bit.  Having read online there were poisonous snakes in the national park, I insisted on hiring a guide for way too much money.  For the amount we paid, I expected a machete wielding tracker escorting us through the thicket of the jungle, battling snakes from all angles.  Instead, a quiet twenty something walked us briskly along a stone path which led through the jungle.  He only told us about the trees or animals when we asked, and we could only ask when he wasn’t twenty some odd meters ahead of us.  Cailin, who had really and rightly questioned the necessity of a guide, was displeased.  I still thought the seven kilometer trek to and from Crocodile Lake, and the Lake itself, were beautiful, albeit slightly underwhelming in the amount of crocodiles I saw (three), but it was clear we could’ve done the trek on our own and probably would have had more fun doing so. 


Still nice

After returning to near the entrance of the park, Cailin and I had a long discussion about my tendency to disregard other peoples input when it goes against a core objective in my head. I was foolishly scared of the snakes, and so I disregarded her continual suggestions to explore the national park on our own.  I realized there were and are many other occasions when I am guilty of this sin.  Sometimes it takes a really good close friend to call you on your bullshit.

After that discussion and some fried noodles, we rented bikes and shared a quaint ride towards the east, into the grasslands of the park.  We climbed to the top of an old garrison tower and had sweeping panoramic views.

_DSC8156.jpg If we’re being honest, one of my favorite pictures ever taken of me.

The whole park was teeming with wildlife and it didn’t shut up.  Pleased, we remounted our bikes, returned to the entrance and left the national park.  We had a while at our hotel before hopping in a taxi to take us to KM142, where we had been dropped the night before so we could board a bus to take us the rest of the way to Saigon, so we lazily packed up and lounged about for an hour or so.  I ordered some fried pork and noodles for dinner.  Cailin ordered the spring rolls.  Big mistake.  At 7:30, we left the hostel for the bus, eventually arriving in Saigon (after watching Tangled, if you haven’t seen it, highly recommended) around 11pm.


Cailin had asked to sleep in the first morning in Saigon, so I slipped out of the room around 8am to get some fresh fruits and take in the awakening city.  It was already very much awake.  Empty streets we had walked down the middle of last night in arriving to our hotel were as busy as Hanoi during rush hour.  When I returned to the hotel around 9am, I found Cailin with her head in the toilet.  The spring rolls from the night before had struck back with a vengeance, she was immobilized.  I departed into the city to get Saltines, Gatorade, and Pepto-Bismol.  I was not able to find Pepto-Bismol.  The one excursion Cailin made from the room that day was when we attempted to go to a market, but the overwhelming smell of fish in the food hall was so foul I felt nauseous.  How Cailin didn’t spill her guts right there was beyond me.  We watched The Help, and then I walked up the street to catch a sunset beer solo at “The View” rooftop bar.  I returned to the hotel with some steamed rice and peanut butter for dinner.  I honestly was not too upset about the missed day of adventure.  We had been going pedal to the metal a dozen days straight.  I wasn’t throwing up, but I was perfectly content to take an evening chilling in the hotel room, watching dumb movies with my friend (Not implying “The Help” is dumb, we watched Adam Sandler flicks after dinner.

The next day, after sleeping in again, Cailin felt well enough to venture into the city.  We went to the “War Remnants Museum”, which absolutely floored me.  Containing exhibits like “American War Crimes Wing” and “Agent Orange Exhibit”, I was deeply moved and am still wrestling to this day with what it means to be an American.  The most stunning part of the museum, I found, was the juxtaposition of the preamble of the constitution written by Thomas Jefferson in big bold letters directly next to pictures of American soldiers surrounded by piles of mutilated Vietnamese bodies. 

After the museum, we visited Ben Thanh Market, one of the largest markets in Saigon.  Cailin got all sorts of presents for friends back home, and I got a trinket or two as well.  Feeling semi-healthy and semi-lucid, we walked the thirty minutes from the market back to our hotel, naturally stopping for some coffee on the way. 

That evening we returned to “The View” rooftop bar I had solo’d at the night before, for a sunset many orders of magnitude better than the evening before, not just for the company but also the color palette of the sky itself. 


Goodnight Saigon

It was so amazing even staffers at the bar were sneaking out their phones to take pictures of the fading ball of gas. 


Staff taking photos

We headed down to the “downtown” of Saigon, and surveyed several restaurants for dinner.  We ended up electing the one with the best view, but you eat with your stomach, not your eyes.  My pizza tasted as from a microwave, and Cailin’s dry fish reinvigorated her sickness which had been dormant for most of the day. 


Great view, bad food

We were still healthy enough to walk down backpacker street on our way back to the hotel.  The loudest and most aggressive music I’d ever heard kept blasting from whichever bar we were closest to.  All the ice cream stores closed at 11 😦 but when we got back to our hotel, I ordered us delivery smoothies via the Vietnammm food delivery app I’ve become reliant on in Hanoi.

The next morning Cailin was feeling as sick as the first day in Saigon.  As the forecast called for rain, we elected to play it safe and go to the movies.  Luckily, it was the release date of 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.

PART VI: LAST DAY IN HANOI (This is same as previous blog, if you’re somehow still reading at this point you can skip this passage, go to Part VII)

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. 


After Cailin’s departure, I was a mess.  I knew the last several days of her visit that her departure would launch me into a deep “low”, much like the one which had overtaken me after my parents departure in April.  Whether it was that Cailin was here for twice as long or that we had done about 10x as much, her departure shook me several orders of magnitude more than my parents had.  I tried to dive right back into Hanoi life, and for a bit It worked.  Several Tulane Friends from a year below me, recent graduates on their celebratory trip across Southeast Asia, were still in town and I went to the Hoa Lau Prison to meet up with them (a great spot for a pick-me-up, I know).  Afterwards, we went to a Harry Potter themed bar where I ordered a delicious mango smoothie.  I was feeling a little better, until I returned home and Cailin was obviously not there.  At work that evening, I couldn’t be bothered.  While I’m still working on being a “good” and “fun” teacher every day, I am proud to say there are very few days where I honestly believe my efforts were poor, but Sunday night was one of those days.  I morosely taught about the letter K, played videos and explained Long “U”s, counting seconds off the clock til I could go home.  The three hour workday felt longer than any 10 hour day I’ve put in previously in my life.

Monday and Tuesday were still extremely difficult.  Having a best friend with me in such a foreign land, as I’ve said countlessly before, offers a level of comfort and relaxation which I’ve been desperately searching for sine January 8th.  To have that so strongly and to have it shattered so suddenly was wrenching to my psyche.  Still, as the days passed my sadness slowly diminished and began to be replaced by a deep gratitude of having traveled such a beautiful country with an amazing person.  On our journey and throughout my larger journey I have been shocked my many aspects of the lives people live out in such a foreign land.  I have had no more trouble wrapping my head around any idea than a woman Cailin and I met in Hue, who told us she had never ventured more than 15 kilometers from her place of birth.  While there is a poetic simplicity in a life so lived which must be admired, it simultaneously drove home how blessed I was to be adventuring nearly 1000x further than that, with my best friend, exploring these wonderful and exotic and magical lands. 

I had Wednesday off from work, so myself and four British friends decided to do an overnight road trip.  Our destination lay about three hours to the east-southeast of Hanoi, a lake called Hoa Binh.  Though originally intending to depart at 9am, the clock was nearing half ten as the five of us climbed on our bikes and finally headed out of the city.  A grueling drive through temperatures flirting with triple digits (Fahrenheit), I didn’t notice.  The views were too incredible.  I wouldn’t say I’ve fallen in love with driving a motorbike, and don’t plan to do so ever again once I’m done living in Vietnam (for reasons to become clear soon).  However, riding through the elements, weaving through the mountains and along passes overlooking spectacular lakes is the purest way to see and understand the true beauty of a country.  After several stops, both planned and unplanned along the way, we arrived to our hostel.  When I say this place was brand new, it had opened only several weeks prior.  No kitchen or even fridge in site, our host took off towards the nearest town 8 kilometers away to get beer, food and water (we thought). 

I was fifth wheeling with two British couples, all of whom I had met through my first set of roommates.  Jack and Vicky are a hilarious couple, as are Dave and Lauren.  Jack and Vicks are headed back to England at the end of June, while Dave and Lauren will be in Hanoi long past my scheduled departure date of early November.  Anyways, the five of us headed to the pool.  I’ve had the fortune of being in many pools with spectacular views in my life.  From beach front to overlooking fields of fireflies, my life has faced no shortage of amazing visuals from manmade chlorinated ponds.  This pool ranks high amongst the finest pools I’ve ever been in.  Lacking a fridge, the host dumped the beers he had bought directly into the pool, which definitely made them less warm than if they had been left directly in the sun.


Hoa Binh Lake

After an evening of views appreciated and laughs shared, we each retreated to our bungalows for a restful nights sleep.  It was the first remotely good night of sleep I’d gotten since before Saigon.  The next morning, after a porridge breakfast, we hit the road back to Hanoi around 9:15am.  I remember thinking to myself early in the drive how proud I was of myself that throughout Cailin and my whole journey we hadn’t come close enough to crashing that any one incident stands out to me, and how proud I was of myself that I hadn’t gotten in a crash in several months.  Hubris, after all, is mans greatest folly.

Not an hour later, I was driving along the AH-13 which connects Hanoi to its relatively nearby southwestern provinces.  A beautiful road flanked on both sides by rice patties, dotted with lakes and picturesque mountains in the distance, I was leisurely riding along and listening to Bob Dylan at 50 kilometers per hour when ahead on the road I saw a dog crossing.  I slowed down to around 40, and gave It a wide berth.  As It had been moving across the road right to left, I went underneath It, passing between dog and curb.  I recall beginning to formulate a dumb “Why did the dog cross the road?” joke in my head, but I never got to the punchline.  At the last second, something in the dog snapped and It turned and jumped directly in front of my motorbike. I had two choices: crash into the dog, likely killing it, or put the bike on the ground and hope for the best for both of us.  Honestly, the first thought never even crossed my mind.  I swung my arms as hard as I could to the right and pitched my shoulder down, attempting to leap from the bike as it crashed down on it’s right side.  Despite my best efforts, my back tires still hit the dogs front paws, though not too hard.  I managed to get most of my body clear of the wreckage, but my right foot and ankle got crushed between the bike and the pavement.  Momentum carried my whole body several meters across the concrete.  When I first came to rest, before I even realized what had happened, my head was spinning.  Slight comfort was brought to me as I saw the dog limping off the road towards a house, and just then side splitting pain overwhelmed the entire right side of my body and I began to scream.

My right shoulder was pouring blood.  My right forearm was mangled with gravel.  My right leg howled in pain, but was drowned out by the more intense pain coming from my foot.  What I saw disgusted me.  Caught beneath the motorbike, the skin covering my ankle was gone, was was the skin on three of my toes.  I don’t think I’d ever screamed so loud in my life.  After alerting my friends, who were about half a kilometer ahead of me of what had happened, I began limping around and screaming in agony.  Several Vietnamese emerged from the house towards which the dog had limped.  They offered what help they could, mainly pointing at the places from which I was bleeding and offering to put ice cubes directly onto the wounds.  That was how I found myself bleeding profusely on a Vietnamese highway with them yelling at me and trying to put ice on my shoulder, and me screaming out in pain while simultaneously trying to Google Translate “Is the dog okay?” on my phone. 

He was.

Knowing that this far out in the countryside I’d be hard pressed to find a doctor who spoke English, I made the excruciating decision to remount my motorbike and continue towards Hanoi.  About fifteen minutes later, my friends and I stopped at a pharmacy where we were able to pour pure alcohol in my wounds and then cover them with cotton balls and scotch tape.  From there, I drove another two hours to Thu Cuc General Hospital in Tay Ho, Hanoi.  I remember thinking how pleasant the drive through the rolling hills and jade rice patties would’ve been if my right side weren’t howling in pain.   

My first ten minutes in the hospital were possibly the scariest in my life.  The attending who spoke English was on lunch break, but nobody had the means to tell me.  They guided me towards the ER as I pointed at my shoulder and ankle and made screeching sounds which I best estimated would express the idea of how much pain I was in.  I tried FaceTiming my mom.  It didn’t even ring.  I tried FaceTiming West Coast friends, it was only 1am there, maybe someone would pick up.  No luck.  I had never felt more alone.  The distance between myself and home had never felt greater.  I’m not proud to admit it, but in that Vietnamese hospital, after having driven almost three hours post crash, right side in agonizing pain with no way to find out what was going on and not a soul in the world to talk to I began to bawl.  Luckily, after about three minutes the English speaking attendant swiftly moved into the ER to help me calm down.  After about two hours of the most excruciating sustained pain I had ever had the misfortune of experiencing as they cleaned the wounds, removed the gravel, injected Tetanus and Typhoid and whatever other shots they needed to where they needed to go, I was numb to it all.  I limply climbed back on my motorbike and puttered home. 

Once I got home I was finally able to reach my mother.  If I thought a face offered comfort untold in times of loneliness, my mothers voice offered comfort unimaginable after the most traumatic afternoon of my life.  I crawled into bed (laying exclusively on my left side), loaded up on antibiotics, anti-inflamatories, , and a lot of Pain Killers, and slept for about 13 hours.  When I awoke, I was greeted on my phone almost a dozen messages of well wishes from people whom I had told about the crash or had heard.  To know that I was being thought of across the world in such a time was rekindling to a dampened soul.  My spirits were further lifted by a morning of semi-lucid FaceTimes made to friends and family, all of whom offered kind words of well wishes for my current predicament while at the same time offering an eager ear for my recantation of my adventures with Cailin, upon which reminiscing helped me feel better.

My last several days have subsisted largely of such.  I have been to injured to work or to do anything except make the daily trip to the hospital to have the wounds cleaned and bandages redone to prevent infections.  I have also been afforded the chance to collect my thoughts and reflect on what I’ve collected regarding my two week adventure with Cailin.  I have had time to write a blog this long that I’m so far down nobody is probably reading it blah blah blah. 

I look forward to more visitors and more adventures once I heal up.  I look forward to enthusiastically reentering the classroom and reassuming my position as Teacher.  I look forward to more freeze dance, musical chairs and hangman.  I’m looking forward to the second half of my year long journey abroad, and it’s just hitting me that I am half way through this journey.  Even with so much to look forward to, I can take great comfort in the things I look back on as well.  For almost six months I have survived on my own in an entirely foreign land.  I landed a job teaching English.  I have made and continue to make new friends from different cultures, massively expanding my world view and deepening who I am as a person.  Perhaps most comforting to look back on are all the memories I shared with my best friend as we traveled together across this great land. 

How lucky I am to have something which makes saying goodbye so hard… how lucky I am to have another six months in this amazing region of the world to continue to work on myself and deepen my understanding of humanity… How lucky I am…

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Life is best when shared

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. 

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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.