As I traveled north through Vietnam, I continued to hear
not-so-great things about Hanoi, and I was not looking forward to the 4 days I
had saved for myself there. When I finally got there and walked around,
experiencing the street food, the hustle and bustle, the water puppet show
(which is a waste of time and money), and the people, I confirmed what I had
heard. So I kept my belongings in my hotel and ventured up to Mai Chau to avoid
However, my last night in the city completely changed my view. I started with a foot massage and some last minute souvenir buying, before I grabbed a child-sized chair on the sidewalk of one of the busiest intersections and ordered a bia hoi. Bia hoi is draft beer that is brewed daily and costs a whopping 5000 Vietnamese dong, or less than $0.25. Definitely can’t be beat!
I drank my beer, wrote out postcards (because, yes, I waited until the very last minute), and just observed. I watched fellow tourists drinking their bia hoi, and rushing to take photos when a motorbike with 6 people on it would ride by. I watched police tell people they couldn’t be selling certain items on the street, and those same people run if they saw the cops coming back. I watched children play and listened to the chatter all around me.
My walk back to my hotel that night was filled with observations as well. I was filled with a warmth from the multiple bia hois I had consumed, and had a hop in my step. I couldn’t help but smile as I walked through the streets. There were old couples holding hands and going for an evening stroll, young teenage love taking pictures by the lake, families stopping for ice cream on their way home. And it hit me then. Hanoi may not have as much to offer travelers as other cities, and on the surface it may seem like a place for a quick stopover. But if you take the time to just watch, listen, smell the city you’ll realize that there’s a happiness in the air that everyone is breathing. So as I made my final evening walk in SE Asia, I took a deep inhale to take in the Hanoi happiness.
I was unsure of what to do with my final day in Vietnam –
the only obvious thing that I would be doing was eating all of the Vietnamese
food that I possibly could (while trying to save some room for sushi in Tokyo).
The obvious activity was a cooking class, and boy did I luck out – private
Bright and early, I was picked up at my hotel in Hanoi and taken to a beautiful house right on the banks of the Red River. We sat outside, watching fishermen on the river, and discussed what I wanted to make. Little did I know, we’d make EVERYTHING - clams with lemongrass, stir-fry morning glory, green papaya salad, grilled pork with rice noodles, Hanoi grilled fish (and more that I don’t remember). Then the tough part came – learning what was needed for each recipe, and how to ask for it in Vietnamese. That’s right – this cooking class included a trip to the local market where I was responsible for getting the necessary ingredients. Uh oh…
Once I successfully faked my comfort with speaking in Vietnamese, I was handed some Vietnamese dong (yes, the 7-year old boy in me laughs each time), and we hopped onto bicycles and headed down an alley, away from the river. As I pedaled, following my guide, I began to notice that I was literally the only foreigner in the area – and I wasn’t the only one noticing that. People were waiving to me as the sights and sounds zoomed by. I was really getting to experience the city sans other tourists trying their best to bargain or cross the street.
Before I knew it, we arrived at the market, left our bikes with a little roadside restaurant and headed in. I was immediately overwhelmed. Despite being mid-morning, the market was still bustling and my eyes darted from one stall to the next – vegetables, fruit, beef, fish, poultry, dried goods. It was amazing how organized the space was amidst the chaos – people on foot, on bicycle, some people even brought their motorbikes right up to each stall. I immediately noted that I should pay attention to my feet – flip flops were a bad choice for fear of losing a toe to a motorbike or stepping in some of the foul looking puddles on the ground. Then there were the smells that all merged into what I can only describe as a mildly sweet, rotting scent.
My guide quickly pointed me to a pork stall and said I should order pork belly. Uh oh, that meant I needed to remember how to ask for things in Vietnamese and how to understand the response. Luckily I had a little cheat sheet that I pulled out as I slowly attempted the pronunciation of “How much for 200 grams of pork”. The woman chuckled, gave me a response, and I quickly accepted. My guide told me that the price was okay, but that I should try bargaining next time. The process went on like this for an hour – I’d ask for something, attempt to bargain, and then get it. My guide jumped in a few times when it was clear that I had no idea what I was asking for (or, more likely, I was pronouncing something incorrectly and asking for pig brains when it was clams that I really wanted). (Note: I do not know what pig brains are in Vietnamese, or clams, so it is very likely that these two things sound nothing alike). The following few things broke up the time in the market:
(1) The tiniest kitten ever, which I immediately spent the following 10 minutes petting, unfazed by the fact that it was likely covered in fleas.
(2) The stall immediately adjacent to where I purchased the pork. I couldn’t stop staring out of disgust and awe. I had heard that older Vietnamese still ate cat and dog (and, therefore, avoided red meat when I was eating from street stalls), but I hadn’t seen it and I really didn’t want to believe it. But there it was – a dog on the cutting board. And people were actually purchasing pieces! (Side note: I realize that the thought of eating a cat or a dog is repulsive to me, because in my mind these animals are pets. If I had grown up eating cat or dog because I had no other meat options, I would likely have a different view).
(3) The stall with live pigeons stuffed in a cage with zero room to move. And then the yanking of a pigeon in said cage and the plop as it hit boiling water.
Despite my lack of language skills and my short attention span on what we were actually doing, we managed to purchase everything on our list, grabbed our bikes, and headed back to the house on the river.
It was cooking time! I was unsure how long I’d be in the kitchen given the number of dishes we were making, but luckily I had help from my guide and the chef at the house. Almost immediately the delicious smells wafted into the air (amidst the not so delicious smell of fish sauce, which we used in almost every dish as it’s a staple of Vietnamese cuisine). As we cooked and tasted, I shared a beer with the head chef, and we discussed life in Hanoi and the other areas of Vietnam that I had seen. Before I knew it, I was sitting outside filling up on all of the delicious food we had cooked, and talking with my tour guide about tattoos and where to buy various cooking supplies to bring home.
After stuffing ourselves to the point of sickness, we ate a bit more, and then my guide kindly offered to take me on her motorbike to buy a few things. I immediately accepted the offer, which was then followed by a few skipped heart beats as I realized that I’d be getting on a motorbike in the city. (Side note: the traffic in Hanoi is no different than that in Saigon – cars, motorbikes, bicycles, and pedestrians just go with the hopes of not colliding). Luckily, by this point in my trip fear was a thing of the past, so I grabbed the helmet and hopped on the motorbike. I didn’t even hold on, as I was preoccupied with videoing the craziness as we zoomed through the streets of Hanoi, stopping to purchase various fish sauces, oyster sauces, seasonings, and the ever-important extra-long cooking chopsticks.
I went to sleep that last night with a fully belly, two bags bursting at the seams, and the corners of my mouth turned up. I had done it. I had traveled for almost 6 weeks, half of which was solo, made new friends, experienced different cultures, and not once did I let my fears stop me. I realized now that my fears are never going to go away, but I found that courage that I thought I’d lost.
One of the few activities on this trip that I planned in advance was hiking to Hang En, the third largest cave in the world at 200 meters wide and 100 meters high deep within the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. I hadn't even known about it when I booked my trip, but only a week later I read an article describing the trek in the New York Times about it, and knew I had to do it. The pictures were stunning, and I figured "I hike for work, this will be a piece of cake". (If you'd like to read the NYT article, shoot me an email - it does a much better job, in my opinion, of describing the adventure).
What I didn't plan for is the self-diagnosed tendinitis in my ankle getting worse over the course of my trip from all the walking I was doing on uneven ground. Luckily, I brought my mildly supportive ankle brace. So as I rode the local bus from Dong Hoi to Phong Nha, the starting point of my trek, I began to question what I had gotten myself into. I knew I would do it - I don't quit, even if I'm getting my ass kicked, but I decided there was a definite possibility that my ass would be kicked, and an even higher probability that my ankle would hurt like hell.
The following morning I woke up, decided what I'd be wearing and bringing (luon is a lifesaver), and boarded a bus with 15 other people - from San Francisco, Amsterdam, Canada, Vietnam, England, and Australia. It was nice to see that some people were feeling as unprepared as I was. My original plan had been to wear my Keens, as I knew part of the trek involved wading through hip-deep water; I instead opted to wear the fashionable camo high tops that Oxalis, my tour company, provided.
Before I knew it, we were on the road, winding through limestone peaks covered with vegetation and over rivers that in the wet season can be impassable - essentially Ha Long Bay on land. Once we reached the start of our hike, we piled out, were given caving gloves, and started our descent.
The sandal-clad porters carrying all of our camping gear and food quickly passed us on the 1500 meter descent. Luckily the shade of the trees provided relief from the hot sun, and every once in a while we'd get a nice cool breeze. Despite my ankle brace, my tendinitis was screaming at me with each step down, and I was looking forward to going uphill for a change (I would later regret this wish on day 2). After one final steep drop, we reached our first stream. We had been told we'd cross streams around 40 times (including multiple crossings the same stream) - we clearly had a ways to go and I was wishing for Advil.
A few minutes later we arrived at lunch; the porters had set up quite the spread - baguettes, Baby Cow cheese, vegetables, fruit, processed meat (in the shape of a hot dog), and cookies. We ate and refilled our water bottles from the nearby stream (via a purifying pump), and then headed out again, this time on flat ground, so my ankle got a bit of a break. Our next stop was at a minority village, where the 62-year leader greeted us with tea and rice wine. We sat around, admiring their village, the tiny school, and the cutest of passed out puppies.
The rest of our trek was through lush greenery and streams upon streams. The sandy bottom streams were quite easy to cross, even when they were deep and flowing; some streams, however, proved more difficult. Their slippery rocks, coupled with the gushing waters made it difficult to keep your footing and stay upright - somehow we all made it without falling! At one point we saw the rusty remains of a cluster bomb from the Vietnam War, and our guide told me that this whole area had been sprayed with Agent Orange and other herbicides, making it devoid of vegetation during the war. I felt a bit of sadness, and amazement at the power of Nature to grow back with such a vengeance.
As we continued hiking, now drenched up to our hips, we finally saw an opening in the limestone - we were told it was called "Daylight" and we'd later learn that it's where the sun spills in over our campsite. One more river crossed, and we were at the opening to Hang En, putting on our caving gloves, our helmets, and our lights. We looked like professional spelunkers.
Now it was time to act like professional spelunkers. We followed the river that flows through Hang En, and then started to ascend a pile of limestone and sand. I don't think any of us were ready for what we'd see at the top - sunbeams flooded through "Daylight", illuminating our campground down below. The porters had set up camp, and our colorful tents looked like tiny houses from an airplane, littering the beach around a turquoise blue pool. It was unreal. We carefully climbed down, still in awe of what was before us. I felt like I needed to be pinched, surely I was dreaming.
We dropped our bags at camp and headed out to explore the cave - wading through the river and up over mounds of limestone and sand. We saw a very large and very poisonous centipede that I very much did not want to have in my tent, spiders, and heard thousands of swifts in the cave. Hang En translates to Swift Cave (hang = cave, which is why people were confused when I kept saying Hang En Cave, or Cave Swallow Cave) due to the plethora of birds during the dry season.
Up over another pile of limestone and we were greeted once again by sunlight - this time through the largest opening in the cave, 120 meters high and 110 meters wide. It was massive, and has the ability to make one feel like the tiniest being on Earth (which is saying a lot in a country where many of the people are smaller than me). Our trek back to camp brought us past 300 million year old fossils of snails and insects in the limestone, and past few stalagmites and stalactites, none of which stretched from the ground to the ceiling, since they grow at a rate of less than 10 centimeters per 1,000 years. The cave itself is 300 million years old, but the limestone that speckles the region and is home to these caves is approximately 450 million years old, the oldest limestone in SE Asia.
We all dispersed to our tents, eager to strip off our wet (and not the most beautiful smelling) clothing. Some people went for a quick dip in the two pools, though it was a bit chilly. Before we knew it, it was dinner time, and the porters had delivered yet again. The amount of food was mind baffling - rice, pork, chicken, morning glory, green beans with beef, and more. And of course, rice wine.
Before eating we all grabbed our shots of rice wine, and together yelled "Mot, hai, ba, do!". Little did we know, that would not be the last time we'd do that - in fact, 4-5 opportunities to down some rice wine presented themselves; I opted to chase the shots with actual rice in an attempt to cover the bitter shock I got with each one. We stayed up, chatting, laughing, and exchanging travel stories.
That night I slept with only the mesh portion of my tent zipped, gazing up towards "Daylight" as I was serenaded to sleep by the swifts. Unfortunately, the same swifts that lured me to sleep also woke me multiple times in the night (coupled with the hard ground - I'm getting old). As the sun rose and light entered the cave, I watched the swifts fly in and out, listening to their chatter once more. Once I heard people up and moving, I went to get coffee and was pleasantly greeted with bird shit on my arm - the first of four times I was shit on that morning in the cave. I think/hope it's good luck...
By 7am more people were awake and I had the awesome and challenging opportunity to teach a yoga class to a few people of varying levels and varying English capabilities. It was quite the fun experience and felt good to move my stiff legs a bit before our hike out.
Yoga and breakfast done, I slipped my wunder unders back on, opted to use the same, still damp socks so as not to drench another pair, and slid my camo boots on for a little more cave exploration before we headed out. The porters once again passed us in their sandals, this time only having to carry 35 pounds each. Our trek back included a brief pause to let a green viper (definitely poisonous) cross our path, another stop at the minority village (they seemed happy to see us), and a lunch break to refuel before our steep climb - that same one we had descended the day before, and the same one I had said I was looking forward to.
Sixty minutes later, hot, sweaty, and with tired quadriceps, we reached the top, and more importantly, we reached hydration in the form of ice cold beer (or water or Coke)!
A quick but heavenly tepid shower, and the realization that I would not be able to get a ticket on the sleeper bus to Hanoi with some of my new friends, I hopped on the local bus to Dong Hoi, hoping I'd be able to get to get transportation from there.
I wasn't sure where I needed to get off the bus, or if it would get me there in time. But the universe works in funny ways. There was a lovely Vietnamese girl who spoke English and kindly helped me. As we rode for 90 minutes she explained how the younger kids on the bus all wanted to practice their English with me, but were too scared (even after my encouragement), and how she works for Oxalis. I told her how I had just finished my hike to Hang En, and she took it upon herself to make sure that I would get to Hanoi. Tao skipped her bus stop, got off with me and walked me to the bus station, ensuring that they had a seat for me on the next departure. It's funny how the universe works. And maybe the universe was also working for the two Vietnamese men who got to sleep right next to me for the 10-hour ride.