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.
PART I: THE FIRST DAY
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.
PART II: NORTHERN ADVENTURES
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.
PART III: CENTRAL VIETNAM
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.
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.
PART IV: SOUTHERN VIETNAM – NHA TRANG, DALAT, CAT TIEN
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.
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.
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.
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.
PART V: SAIGON; OR: THE FOOD POISONING OF DEATH
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.
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.
PART VII: THE DEPARTURE, THE CRASH
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.
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…