Note: I am writing this about a week later and my memory is hazy about the details of the day, so we’ll see how this goes.
Last night, I made plans with four people I met on the boat over dinner – Jack and Caitlynn, who are also from Seattle(!) and Zwen and Stella, two friends from Germany. So in the morning we to head to Cat Ba National Park. There are guided tour options to get there, but I’d heard the trails were well-marked, I have pretty good wits about me in hiking situations, and I wanted the chance to experience it without someone else’s lens. So I hired a taxi for the day, which took all five of us about 15 minutes outside of town.
The first stop was the Hospital Cave, which is a 17-room, three-story building inside of a natural cave. A visitor’s guide at the entrance gave us a brief overview of the history of the cave: It was built during the Vietnam-American war as both a hospital and bomb-proof shelter and had everything from a small swimming pool to a cinema inside. Doctors treated hundreds of patients here during the war.
After our visit to the cave, we went to the National Park. There was building full of “specimin” display, with all types of animals stuffed and preserved in a water-clear liquid (formaldehyde or alcohol?). I didn’t manage to get any good pictures, but it was an interesting (if strange) addition to the trip.
We walked down a street past abandoned buildings, a few snack shops, and eventually up a stair stepper of a mountain, which was paved nearly the whole way. We took camera photos of the map and, other than a few moments where we had to decide which direction to go, it was completely straightforward. Although it wasn’t raining, by the time we reached the top it was completely covered in mist, and what is supposed to be a spectacular view of the islands in the bay was instead a wall of white.
That afternoon I caught a bus + boat + bus to Haiphong. The boat was a particularly interesting experience. On the way to the island, I’d caught a hydrofoil ferry-type boat. But this boat was people-only (no vehicles allowed) and had seats that weren’t screwed into the floor. It was a fun ride, and when we got to the dock I had to climb up a step that was about waist-high in order to get off the boat… a little challenging with a pack on.
When I got to town I impulse-bought a memory card-to-iPhone dongle from a local shop, which seriously improved the quality of the photos coming off of my digital camera. (Shout out to Daniel on the Cat Ba boat who figured out why the sharpness on my photos was less than stellar & let me borrow his to see the difference.)
The man at the shop didn’t speak any English, which was to be the first of many experiences like that in Haiphong. Although Haiphong is the third-largest city in Vietnam, it doesn’t have the tourist buzz that other places do — and also doesn’t seem to covet it.
On the other hand, the people were extraordinarily friendly. The (many) times I stopped to look at my phone, trying to orient myself, a local would inevitably stop, gesture to look at my phone, and then point me in the right direction. When I was in the vicinity of my hostel, passing by it absentmindedly, one woman would shout from across the street – “May Hostel!” and pointed.
Exhausted that first night but hungry, I ventured out to find a place to eat to find most shops closing down. I ended up finding a Chinese hot pot and dim sum restaurant, which was absolutely hopping. They had an English menu and the server and I communicated by pointing. I drank a delicious orange-cinnamon tea that I would have bottled if I could.
But I’d never eaten dim sum before and didn’t understand there was an entire bar of sauces and dips to mix together for my dumplings, so halfway through my server collected my dipping dish and prepared a sauce for me. It was such a lovely kindness, but it made me feel welcome in a way I hadn’t expected to.
The next day, I have a lot of work to get done, so spend much of the rainy morning and afternoon in my dorm (which holds six people, but I’m the only one there) catching up. I’ve had a headache since the night before. I think it’s dehydration, but I’m not sure, and can’t keep myself from googling Dengue Fever, typhus, Hep A, etc…
When I do venture out, I walk to the places that my hostel receptionist suggested — there aren’t any guided tours of Haiphong city, so I plug a few destinations into Google Maps and find my way around. I stop at a street vendor to eat Bánh Đa Cua, one of Haiphong’s signature dishes, which is a brothy soup filled with hearty brown rice noodles and topped with onions, seafood, meat, and some kind of sausage wrapped in a leafy green — with, of course, herbs and lettuce served on the side. These street food places are everywhere, a hodgepodge of buckets and boilng broths and small glass window containers on wheels, with silver or plastic tables and low, stepstool-sized chairs. They often have the best food and are cheap, cheap, cheap (~$1.30 USD). The woman who runs the place takes a nap in a chair listening to the radio until another diner asks to pay.
For dinner, I head to one of the more famous restaurants in Hai Phong, Banh Da Cua Ba Cu. I can’t even figure out where to enter the building (the kitchen is at the front of the restaurant), when a woman — who I don’t even think worked there — stepped up to help me, and offered to get the two most popular dishes ordered for me.
The restaurant was split in two, with a koi pond in the middle, and you crossed from one side to the other via a stone bridge.
The first up was a deep-fried crab-bread thing (Nem Cua Be) that was really tasty, but came with a side of lettuce and sauce that totally baffled me. Drink sauce? Make salad? I’d made it about halfway through when the server — who may have been the owner? — spotted my struggle and used gesture to explain how to eat it. Put the crab piece in the bowl. Put the lettuce on top of the crab piece. Pour some of the sauce over top. Eat.
Next was more Banh Da Cua. Ah well. At least I knew how to eat that one.