Hoi An: Days 7 – 11

travel

After a day in Haiphong, I take an early morning flight to Da Nang airport and then a car to Hoi An. There are other, more scenic ways to travel but the hour and a half flight was (I just double checked this because I couldn’t believe my bank statement) $18.40, and uh… yeah.

Hoi An had been really high on my list, but I still didn’t really know what to expect. The weather was quite humid, and I was pretty beat, so I had a casual day and wandered around without the goal of seeing anything in particular.

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Here are a few things Hai Phong is known for:

  • Lanterns
  • Tailors who will bust out everything from a casual dress to a three-piece professional suit for exceptional prices (~$100 USD for a suit, depending on the tailor and material)
  • A night market
  • Being cute and very tourist-friendly

Well, my first day a very friendly woman was riding past on her bike and told me to visit her tailor shop, and before I knew it I was buying a shirt, a dress, and a pair of pants for a total of $105 USD. She told me to come back the next day at 6 p.m. for the first fitting.

After dropping a fair bit of money, I decided to keep the party rolling and she walked me over to a massage salon where I got a 60 minute massage, had my first-ever pedicure and had them clip my fingernails because I didn’t pack nail clippers. All told it ran me 580,000 dong, or about $25.

Even though that is beyond cheap, I proceeded to mentally beat myself up about spending so much money for several more days. There are two elements to that: One, my brain’s fondness for self-flagellation, and two, how quickly your (read: my, but it seems to be a common thread among travelers) brain spins out about money here, and about what something is “worth.”

“I wouldn’t pay more than 30,000 dong (less than $2) for a beer,” another tourist told me my first day in Vietnam, when we pay $6 and up for a beer back home without blinking an eye. I’ve caught myself doing the same — I paid 85,000 dong to have my laundry done at one hotel (around $4), and wondered if I should walk around town to see if I could find a better price (nah). Mark and I paid $30 to have our laundry done on the Mediterranean cruise we took earlier this year.

Hoi An is “expensive” compared to other cities — I regularly spent 100,000 dong on dinner (about $4.30 USD) and felt like I was somehow blowing through money. I also got confused about the exchange rate — I’ve been pulling 2 million dong out of the bank thinking it’s about $200 USD, but then I’d spend it in a day or two.

“Holy shit, did I just spend $200 in a day? What am I doing?” I’d start thinking. The other day, I realized 2 million dong is about $85. Ah.

And I’m going to be honest, even though I have (irrationally) been freaking out about money, I’ve also been judging other tourists. At the night market, someone was asking how much a cup of rolled ice cream (very cool — they pour thick milk onto a frozen surface, chop fruit into, and freeze it on the spot in a flat layer, then use a scraper to curl it into little wraps.) Cost: 30,000 dong, $1.29 USD.

“Why so expensive?” the tourist asked. “That’s ridiculous.”

And I couldn’t help but think: Motherfucker, you can’t get a soft serve from McDonald’s for that cheap.

I’ve heard other people brag about managing to get the “local” price for good or services or haggling for the equivalent of $1 USD.

On the one hand, I am traveling rather cheaply — staying mostly in hostels (I have splurged for a cheap private room a few times), choosing to walk rather than take taxis, etc. I’m here in large part due to the incredible exchange rate, which allows me to visit longer. I understand that everybody has a budget.

But I also don’t want to come to Vietnam and pat myself on the back for not spending money. I’ve worked in tourist towns. I’ve lived off tourist money. I don’t want my takeaway from visiting this country to be that I somehow managed to pull a fast one and never spent a dime more than necessary.

OK, digression done.

The next day, I went on a tour to My Son Sanctuary (closer to “me song” than “my son”, but don’t ask me for pronunciation advice, my tonality is god-awful). The temples here are up to 1700 years old. There used to be more than 70, rediscovered by a Frenchman in 1898, but during the Vietnam-American war many of them were destroyed and only a handful remain.

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A crater left by one of the bombs from the Vietnam-American war

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The next few days are a bit of a blur. I picked up my tailored clothes, which look really nice and fit fabulously. I made friends with one of my dorm mates, Harriet, and we went to dinner. Whatever we ate made us both almost immediately sick.

By the next day I was mostly OK (I broke my no-Western food goal and ate French toast for breakfast) and risked a guided bike tour out of Hoi An town to a nearby island village. I’m so glad I did — I had an incredible time with Sanh from Hoi An Adventure. I visited a family who makes rice noodles and rice paper in a semi-traditional manner (most is made in machines these days) and got a chance to try it myself. I met a woodworking artist who enthusiastically showed me around his shop, holding different art pieces up to my nose so I could smell the different woods, burning strips of different statues to release their scents. He helped me carve my name into a piece of wood. Then my guide, Sanh, and I biked through farmland to visit a family who makes traditional floor mats and showed me how the loom works.

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Vo Duc Thi, a woodworking artist, helping me to carve my name into a piece of wood

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Sanh demonstrating how to use a floor mat loom

A few things Sanh shared with me:

  • To make rice paper, soak rice in cold water for 2-4 hours, then run it through a modern machine for 30 minutes to get 10-15 kilos of rice.
  • One layer of rice paper makes paper, two layers makes noodles
  • People often burn rice husks (uh, definitely did not know rice came in husks) to cook because it’s cheap to buy, and then they use the ash to fertilize the ground.
  • We drank a tea made of red bean and black bean
  • We ate a snack called “Banh Dap” – rice noodles sandwiched between rice paper with sesame seeds and garlic, dipped in soy sauce
  • Each village has a non-denominational worship shrine, where people come by on a regular basis to say prayers and light incense, especially on the 1st and 15th of the month

Afterward, I found out that Zwen and Stella were in town, so I went to dinner with them — where we bumped into Ramona and Florian, two Austrians who were also on the Cat Ba boat, and joined forces with them until around 10:30 p.m.

This morning I walked to a Western-style cafe owned by an Australian with my dorm mate Harriet and then have otherwise been killing time until my sleeper bus to Da Lat. That trip leaves at 5:30 p.m. and takes 14 hours, so… wish me luck.

Cat Ba National Park to Haiphong: Days 5 & 6

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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.

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A hallway through the Hospital Cave outside of Cat Ba Island National Park

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Re-enactment of a meeting room for the VietCong

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Slippers by a bed in the Hospital Cave

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The largest room in the cave on the second floor. Zwen helped model for me by walking quickly through the room, appearing like a ghost (though my shutter speed should have been a little faster.)

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Jack demonstrating the low cave ceilings that led to another room — one would have to army-crawl in order to reach the other side.

 

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.

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Zwen on one of the view flat paths of the trail

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Me at the viewpoint — the top is a little further, but with the lack of view it didn’t seem worth the extra push

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.

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View from the boat departing of Cat Ba Island

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.

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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.

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Stone bridge crosses a koi pond in the middle of Banh Da Cua Ba Cu restaurant

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.

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Next was more Banh Da Cua. Ah well. At least I knew how to eat that one.

Vietnam Day 3 & 4: Cruising Lan Ha and Ha Long Bay

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If you go to north Vietnam, most would say you’d be missing out to not see Ha Long Bay. I’d agree. The area was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. Essentially every tour company sells a package, and you can do a day trip cruise or a multi-day cruise where you sleep overnight on a boat in the bay. “Cruise” essentially means fancy boat ride — most options aren’t going to have casinos and bowling alleys. But they often have meals included, English-speaking guides, and activities like kayaking. Can’t I just rent a kayak and paddle around? I wondered before I came. Not really. The bay is massive, nearly 1,000 square miles, and to kayak exclusively would be like opting to look at a single brick in a pyramid. Interesting, but missing the point.

While many take a bus from Hanoi to Ha Long city and catch a boat there, the waters nearby can be quite crowded. I wanted something a little different. So I took a bus to Cat Ba island, the largest island in the Cat Ba archipelago, and signed up for a two day, one night cruise with Cat Ba Ventures.

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The trip started on a “junk boat,” a wooden boat used primarily for tourists that won’t exist much longer because it is difficult to repair wood over and over, so new boats must be made of steel*. We began in Lan Ha Bay, a lesser-known but similarly beautiful series of islands. The main difference, according to our tour guide, Duke, is that Ha Long Bay is supported by more tourism dollars because it’s managed by a different city. Lan Ha, on the other hand, is part of Haiphong, which has invested less in tourism. 

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Along the bay there are fishing villages, homes hanging laundry, dogs keeping watch to ward off anyone who might try to pirate caged fish. Sometimes men live far from their families. Sometimes families live on the boats, the kids boating to land if there is a school nearby, or staying full time in a military school.

There are hundreds of islands here and only the largest have names. They are made of limestone and granite, eroded by sea water, leaving tall karsts shrouded in thick bushes and trees. It is the kind of place where you understand how humans could only prosper in communities, no single man able to carve a home in a wilderness so dense.

Before lunch, we stop for a swim. There are no sharks or crocodiles here, but Duke warns us to watch our feet if we approach a nearby beach. The coral and oysters are sharp.

“What about the jellyfish?” I ask. They hurt, he says, but they won’t kill you.

I jumped from the second floor, and the water was cool but not frigid. The other swimmers and I swam toward a nearby beach, but the ground was rocky and sharp, so rather than going ashore, we turned back. On the way back, I swear I see a jellyfish and splash, swimming backward, before eventually making it to the boat. Probably just seaweed, I tell myself. I climb out of the water. Behind me, that jellyfish that I’d convinced myself I’d imagined stings another shipmate. Her wrist reddens but she’s OK.

The meals onboard are delicious, with several types of fish for the meat eaters, many types of vegetables for the vegetarians. We all share anyway, reaching our chopsticks across the table, asking for dishes to be passed. It’s the longest I’ve spent sitting and eating that I can remember, the challenge of eating small dishes out of a bowl with chopsticks slowing us down, tourists from Spain and Austria and Germany and the U.S.

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The water is super salty, and I sit in my wet clothes, the saline making my skin itch. We cruise to a quiet part of Ha Long Bay, passing fisherman steering rowboats with their feet. It’s so their hands are free to catch fish and squid, Duke explains. I try to ask — who learns to do this? How long does it take them to learn? But the questions don’t land.

A while later, we drop anchor and climb into kayaks. Duke and I are in a boat together. He steers and I paddle us through cave arches into small lagoons. Mostly we are quiet, but he tells me about his sister who lives in the United States, how he is paying back his family for his education, that they ask him when he will get married but that’s not something he wants right now.

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Back on the boat, we meet up with the ship that will take us the rest of the way and house us overnight. I take a shower as quickly as possible and then watch the sun go down, no glorious array of colors but a slow dimming to blue and then dark, the islands turning to silhouettes in the distance.

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At dinner, I cast myself as the curious extrovert and ask questions that get the table talking. Do you think men and women can be friends? What’s something people do that really annoys you? How much money would it take for you to do a job you hated for the next five years? At 8:30, I climb into my room and fall immediately asleep.

I’m up at 5 a.m. and get some work done while waiting for the sun to rise. When it does, it’s a misty, unglamorous morning, so I head back to my room until it clears a little more and head to breakfast. Afterward, we go kayaking to more beautiful lagoons and caves, and we have a chance to go swimming before lunch but most decline. Then we head back to Cat Ba.

That’s where I am now. I booked a different hotel — cheaper, and so far, nicer — for the night. The group from the boat that is still on the island for the night is going out for beers a little later. Tomorrow I’d planned to hike around Cat Ba National Park, but the weather doesn’t look great, so we’ll see. After that, I’m headed to Haiphong, Seattle’s sister city, to get the lay of the land before heading south.

*did a quick Google but unable to confirm accuracy with certainty

Thoughts beyond the itinerary

Travel is a pretty new thing to me. Before my mom died (2015) I’d only ever traveled abroad to the UK to visit Mark’s family. I’d been to a few states — Oregon, Utah, California (where I visited my dad). We didn’t really have family “vacations” to new places. My first flight was to a funeral.

This year I started traveling regularly. I went to eight different countries (all very briefly) in 2018, all thanks to travel writing and press trips (wherein hotels, cruises, or tourism boards pay a writer’s expenses to visit their location in order to get placement in one of the writer’s regular publications; the writer hopes to get a good story that someone will buy, to make the time away from their desk worth it.)

I have all kinds of mixed feelings about this. Growing up I couldn’t imagine a future in which I’d have the ability to travel out of the country often. I didn’t do a student exchange because it seemed too expensive to consider. Even road trips seemed to have an unwritten price tag: the money you were willing to front for a necessary tune up, the disaster you can afford to absorb should things go awry on the way.

So I’m hesitant to evangelize travel. I’m not sure there’s some mythical understanding of the world that can’t be obtained in another way. I don’t think you (or I) “have” to travel. My mom used to say she’d never wanted to travel abroad because there was so much to see in the United States. She wasn’t wrong. But I have also loved seeing new places, stingrays and sea urchins in Jamaica, cenotes in Mexico, fjords in Norway. The landscapes often stick with me, a way of understanding the long, long history of the earth and the very small place I fit in it.

Then there’s the question of what we mean when we say travel: Does traveling to foreign resorts and laying on the beach count as “travel”? Is lugging a backpack from hostel to hostel more “authentic” — especially if it means you’re on a budget, bringing little to the economies you’re touring? How can you be sure to interact with locals in a way that isn’t exploitative, particularly in a place where the income is much different to yours? Or is exploitation inherent in exchanging money for a peek into a culture different from your own?

I don’t have answers, just questions upon questions upon questions.

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I’m also sensitive to the fact that cheap, readily available travel — the kind of travel that has made it possible for me to do what I’m doing — is unequivocally contributing to global warming. My $600 flight has costs beyond the ticket price. And yet I question whether a higher price point would be the best solution to the problem. Is the world better if fewer people can afford to see the vastness of it?

Or maybe what I’m trying to say is: In Ha Long Bay, we saw trash. Was it “a lot” of trash? I don’t know. It’s the kind of trash that maybe came from local boats (which is against the law), or maybe came from the tide pulling trash into the waters (the ocean can’t determine where the border of a World Heritage site begins and ends.) Our guide, Duke, quietly fished plastic out of the water. The trash we could reach, my partner and I pulled into our kayaks. 

Here is what I do know: To see the beautiful places — and people — of the world is to unintentionally change them. To add more tourist ships to the waters, to raise prices for lodging, to turn signs from the local language to English, to see more styrofoam and plastic bags caught on the rocks of places we would very much like to protect.

We’ll need to do better than retrieving a bottled water or two.

Vietnam Day 2: Cat Ba Island

travel

Not as much to report today as it was mostly a travel day. I fell asleep around 11 p.m., woke up at 2 a.m. to a nightmare that I’d had to tackle my dog out of the way of a moving vehicle, and didn’t fall asleep again until 5 a.m. Made the relatively mild 8 a.m. wake-up time to get ready for my bus a little rough.

I am noticing that Vietnam seems to be a very nightlife-heavy place — not just party stuff, but even going out to eat seems to be a late night activity. I swear the karaoke bar in Hanoi didn’t even get going until after 10 p.m. and the voices in the hallways didn’t quiet until four in the morning. Might have to fight my early bird tendencies eventually, but not today, because it’s 7 p.m. and I’m knocking out this post in an extraordinarily firm bed and hitting the hay directly afterward.

It took four hours to get from Hanoi to Cat Ba island. Cat Ba is an archipelago (series of islands), the name of the largest island in that archipelago, and the name of the main town for tourists on the island. It’s also the name of the national park on the island. I’m here because I’ll be taking a junk boat overnight cruise around Ha Long Bay (you’ve probably seen pictures of this area, as it’s gorgeous and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and Lan Ha Bay, and then likely doing some trekking in the park before heading back to the mainland.

I left the hostel at 10, but not before seeing a mouse run across the lobby floor. I jumped. I’ve lived in houses infested with mice before so it’s not like it’s new, but I’m out of practice. The hostel manager (possibly owner?) just kind of looked at me as if he were wondering if I were going to complain. Nah.

The bus ride was pretty uneventful, in no small part because it had WiFi and so I got lost in my phone. How many times can you refresh an app? About 200,000 times when you’re surrounded by other tourists who may or may not speak your language and have their own people to talk to. Eventually, I felt like an infinite scrolling monkey and switched to a book, which was basically the 20th century’s way of definitively ignoring your surroundings. Supposedly some hostels have book exchanges but I haven’t seen any yet.

We stopped at a rest stop and I ate food cart banh mi. The bathroom didn’t have toilet paper — that seems to be common for public bathrooms, which I’d heard about, and packed toilet paper, but also keep forgetting to put it in my day bag.  Eventually, we arrived at a small ferry boat called a hydrofoil, which loaded on our tour bus and several small scooters and cars.

I got to the island and checked into my hotel, which was a whopping $12 for a massive bed and private bath. There’s even a hairdryer – luxury. One interesting commonality between the hostel and this hotel is that the bathrooms don’t separate the shower and the toilet. There is no bathtub or shower floor. Instead, the shower just sprays directly onto the floor and slowly drains into a grate in the corner. Theoretically. Mostly it seems to just mean a perma-wet floor.  In the hostel, there was a divider (quite literally like the stalls in a U.S. public bathroom), which added an extra je ne sais quoi to tromping across a wet floor to go pee in the night.

After taking a shower I headed out to explore Cat Ba town. Obviously I’ve never been here before, but it seemed pretty clear that it’s the off-season — or maybe everything will seem deserted compared to Hanoi, I’m not sure. A good chunk of the storefronts and hotels are under constructions, as are pieces of the roads. It feels very much like a touristy beach town, made up primarily of hotels, restaurants, and tour operations, sometimes all in the same lobby. There’s not as much of a mixture between locals and foreigners here. At one point, I did watch a multicultural soccer game break out, though.

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I wandered around and took pictures for a while and then found my way to a restaurant. I avoided the restaurants on the main drag, even though they were some of the few places that had people sitting around. I’m not entirely sure why. It’s the weird trigonometry of exploring a place, I guess: wanting to eat from the place you’re visiting, but you also wouldn’t mind talking with a stranger, but many of those strangers already have someone to talk to, and also you feel judgey about a place serving burgers and pizza, even though you will probably end up desperate for some Western food before your trip is done.

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Anyway, I ordered Bun Cha and a beer, and the beer was bigger than the meal, so I also ordered dessert (mango sticky rice.) You know, for balance.

 

 

 

Vietnam Day 1: Food, Fumes, and Friends in Hanoi

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Well, today was so action-packed that I thought I might revive this blog while I’m in Vietnam.

Background: I booked a ticket to Hanoi, Vietnam in August on a whim after finding a deal on tickets ($600 RT). I proceeded to plan very little (though I did do research, including enough to write a guide for REI). I’m here for 30 days on my own.

I arrived at my hostel around midnight after an 11-hour flight from Seattle, two-hour stopover in Incheon, South Korea and a 5-hour flight to Hanoi. It seemed like a pretty quiet, chill place until the train went by and karaoke started next door, but I’m still quite happy with it. There are curtains on the dorm beds which reminds me of my single person tent on the PCT — separate but not entirely alone. There’s a bathroom in the four-bed all-female dorm, which echoes like an operatic tinkle house. On the other hand, I managed to poop at around 2 a.m., which is a miracle because 1) I am almost sure everyone was asleep or at least enclosed in their curtain rectangles enough that they couldn’t identify the culprit and 2) it usually takes me dayyyyys to get my gut on board when I’m traveling (a problem which also inspired an article.)

Much like the PCT, it took me almost no time to start talking about poop here.

I managed to sleep until around 8 a.m. this morning which is also a minor miracle, considering I slept for about 15 hours total on my trip 10 day trip to Scandinavia in September. I’ve heard jet lag isn’t as bad going west as it is going east, and so far that seems to be true.

Okay, Hanoi: The hostel served toast and a single fried egg for breakfast, and then I headed out to get some U.S. dollars changed to Vietnam dong. The exchange rate is bonkers here, so bonkers that I’ve taken copious notes in order to wrap my head around it. 50,000 VND is about $2 USD. For those who are out of math practice (AKA me), here are some other ways to think of it:

100,000 VND = $4.28 USD
250,000 VND = $10.70 USD
500,000 VND = $21.39 USD
1,000,000 VND = $42.78

I exchanged $120 US dollars this morning, which quite literally meant I was a millionaire twice over. In the meantime, the Vietnamese have basically given up on anything less worth than 1,000 VND and have changed their lingo accordingly. So, if someone says, “This is 100 VND,” that’s actually one hundred thousand VND, and they will look at you like you’re stupid if you try to hand them the equivalent of $0.0043 USD.

After exchanging the money and feeling like a bank robber, I walked to a local travel agency and booked a popular and very SEO-friendly food tour, Hanoi Street Food Tour. I say “walked” — it was more like a live-action version of Frogger. The streets in Hanoi are filled with motorbikes, cars, vans, cyclists, and pedestrians. There’s a kind of organized chaos when it comes to crossing the street: There are crosswalks, which doesn’t mean vehicles will stop, and pedestrian walk signs, which also don’t mean vehicles will stop, and stop lights, which also… well, you get it. I got advice early that went something like this: You just have to walk with confidence, and the traffic will go around you. Well. The bikes will. Don’t step out in front of a car. But you’ll be fine!

On the other hand, on my first flight I sat next to a man who grew up in Vietnam but lives in Seattle, and on one of his last trips to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, he was hit by a motorbike and cracked his skull open.

Seattle has actually prepared me for the walk-with-pedestrian-pride bit, though — Seattle drivers seem to get irritated at you for not assuming they’ll stop at a pedestrian crossing, even when they’ve given you no indication they will. It was easier to pick up on crossing a busy street like there wasn’t heavy machinery pummeling toward me than it probably should have been. Honestly, I found crossing the street in the UK more difficult. At least cars here are on the same side of the road as I’m used to.

In the food tour group, I met two folks from New Jersey, a man from Israel, an Australian couple and a woman from South Africa who lives in Korea. The group ended up being really fun. We tried Bun Cha (a pork noodle dish that President Obama tried with Anthony Bourdain, although at a different restaurant), a dried beef papaya salad, egg coffee (in which egg and sugar are whipped into a foam and put on top of Vietnamese coffee), Banh Mi (which is made with part rice flour and makes the crust extra light), local beer, rice paper rolls unlike any I’d had before, some of the tastiest fried spring rolls I’ve ever had, glass noodles, and sticky rice with ice cream. But apparently, every guide gets to choose their own dishes and restaurants, so the itinerary changes based on who you’re with — which is awesome, in my opinion.

fried-fish

The food tour took us to established stalls, but there are people cooking directly on the street in pans like this one, sometimes with small plastic chairs and tables (like, real small, close to what we might consider step stools in the west) nearby. Apparently, that’s because serving food on the street is technically illegal, so you need to be able to clean up fast should the police come by. This woman was frying fish, tons of it, and said she provides hundreds of meals a week to the local hospitals for patients who are elderly or poor to eat.

One of my biggest fears coming here — and before most of my international trips, really — is that I wouldn’t make friends or have people to talk to. Today was a nice antidote to that fear. After the food tour, the Australian couple (Paul and Rosa, who is actually Finnish) the South African woman, Meryl, and I walked around the shops. I bought 40,000 VND “I’m traveling in Asia” shorts (about $2 USD). Apparently, it’s common, accepted practice to haggle in SE Asia, but I just don’t have it in me to haggle for $1.50.

Paul and Rosa were nice enough to let me tag along on their night’s itinerary, too — dinner at a fancy* restaurant run by students and a traditional water puppet show, whose storyline I couldn’t follow but was entertaining nonetheless.

*Dinner was around $7 USD a plate, which is “expensive” for Vietnam, and the food was really good. The servers placed the intricately folded napkins in our laps. They spoke excellent English. There were fancy cocktails. There was also a rat that ran down the wall into a hole in the floorboard, which the server promptly plugged, and set all of us laughing, and then trying to cover our laughter, which made us laugh even more.

A few fun facts that have not been fact-checked:

  • “Cảm ơn” means thank you. But it is not “come on,” we learned thanks to the Australian couple, who said it in front of our tour guide, Rosie. “Come on” means “shut up,” Rosie said. Thank you is more like, “come uhhnn.” So I’ll have to be very careful not to say “shut up!” when trying to express gratitude.
  • “Phở ” is not “foe”, which you may already know if you have an obnoxious foodie friend. It’s “fuh.” But today I learned that “foe” means “bitch.”
  • I will probably be having stress dreams about trying to say “thank you for the phở ” tonight.

Lead image is the red bridge on Hoàn Kiếm Lake. It leads to Đền Ngọc Sơn, or Temple of the Jade Mountain.

To Be Alone – Day 98: Harris State Park to California border

Oregon Coast Trail

July 28

Energizer and Dexter leave early. I don’t sit around too long, but then I realize I need to pay for my campsite so I can slackpack and leave my tent, but the ranger doesn’t show up until 8:30. I don’t want to wait that long, so I ask a biker who is awake if he’ll pay for my site for me. He says yes, but then I start chatting with him and I end up being around for an hour anyway. We talk about some of the things I found strange about the PCT, and he says he noticed similar things when he talked to some hikers he camped with while biking. He tells me about bike touring and I get half convinced I should buy a bike and spent the next month doing that instead. He’s very nice, and it’s a good way to start the morning.

Eventually I pay for my campsite and start walking to town. I get a sandwich at Fred Meyer where the cashier will barely look at me and I assume it’s because I look homeless, but I don’t know.

I eat as I walk. It’s a pleasant walk along the road past farms, with clouds up higher on the mountain. It reminds me of visiting my husband’s home in Wales, and that makes me feel calm. Maybe I’m ready to go home? I think. But my gut is quiet so I don’t know what that means.


Rather quickly I get to the visitor’s center. I look around and see that Energizer Bunny and Dexter have already been here and signed the register. Dexter texts me and says they’re back in town. I go to the beach and hang out in the driftwood and take my final photo of the OCT.

The people at the visitor center are super friendly and try to find me a way back to town, although eventually I stick my thumb out and a man who saw me walking earlier pulls over. He hurt his back and is envious of the trip I’ve done.

He drives me straight to Fred Meyer, where I get some snacks for the night. I go across the street to try to find a real outfit at Goodwill with no success. Then I get some takeout from a Mexican restaurant and walk back to camp.

At camp, Sonia and Mermaid have arrived. We chat around the dinner table.

I tell Sonia I won’t be headed back to the PCT, at least not right away. She’s surprised. I tell her I don’t really want to be around thruhikers again. She tells me: You need to stop caring about what other people think.

But I’m not sure how to do that, and I’m not sure it’s what I want to do. There are some places I don’t mind being alone, choosing aloneness even when opportunities for friendship present themselves. I don’t think the wilderness is one of them.

The Long Road Home

Oregon Coast Trail

The next morning we wake early to catch a bus to Medford. From there, Energizer Bunny and Mermaid head off to Ashland to continue hiking on the PCT. Dexter and I are headed to Portland – Dexter to head home, and me to take some time to figure out what I want to do next.

I hear that another hiker, Tree, a woman I met on my fourth day, has died in the Sierra. How did we let someone be alone out there? How did we let Tree be alone? I am angry and sad. 

On the bus to Portland, there’s another PCT hiker. He and Dexter had met before. He had to get off trail because he’s being deployed. He talks about the miles he’s done, how 30 mile days had become no sweat, that he’d left his group of 800 miles because they were too slow. The only thing he asks Dexter is: So did you do the Sierra? I put in my headphones and feel frustrated and exhausted and glad, really, that I am not going back to the PCT today.

In Portland, Dexter and I go our separate ways. I take the train and a bus to my hostel. The first time I visited Portland it felt sweet and small, that night it feels like New York City, dirty and smelling of urine and overwhelming. Did it change, or did I?

I spend a couple of days wandering Portland. I go to the book store and buy a book of poetry and a dystopian novel about space and Antarctica. I get my hair cut and colored. I get a new bra. I get a tank top and a hair brush. I visit Scissors and have dinner with her and her girlfriend and they walk me around a rose garden. The next night I stay with Twerk and we eat delicious pizza and chat about the trail.

The next day I take a bus to Seattle. Maybe I can just hike Washington, I’ve been saying to myself. I could start at Cascade Locks. I’d be ahead of the thruhiker crowd…

In Seattle I spend hours by myself in my friend Natalie’s apartment and it’s glorious. I read. I write. I watch YouTube. I make food for Natalie and her boyfriend, Loomis. I do laundry and tidy the kitchen. “We could go backpacking this weekend,” they say. So we do. I’ll get to backpack with people I like, who like me, who I’m not trying to impress – maybe it will make me want to go back to trail.

But it doesn’t. My body is desperately grateful for the physical movement, for a pounding heart. Hiking feels like an incredible physical relief. But it’s also clear to me that I don’t want to be here anymore. We set up camp and play Heads Up and I laugh and laugh and laugh. The PCT is only a mile or so away and there’s supposed to be a view of Mt. Rainier, so we hike to it. It’s steep, and I’m amused – the Crest trail. One has to get to the crest. Along the way, I am trying to think of how to say goodbye to the PCT. A beautiful, impossible trail stretching from one end of the country to the other. How to say thank you. How to let go. We’re passing thousands of wildflowers, and I find myself picking one. When we reach the PCT, I hold the flower out to the sign. I think: goodbye, sweet trail. The mosquitos are attacking my hands and arms and ankles. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.


The next day we hike out. I guess I’ll just take a flight back home, I think. It doesn’t feel quite right, but I don’t know what else to do – I don’t feel like hiking, I don’t feel like traveling, I don’t feel like flying home. I’m scrolling Facebook when I see my friend say he’s thinking about taking a road trip and it occurs to me: I could drive home instead.

I manage to find an awesome deal on a rental car (thanks to AutoSlasher.com) and plan a loose itinerary of places I want to see and Monday morning, I head out.

Meanwhile, I’m lying to my husband. It’s his birthday in a week and I want to surprise him. I’m in Canada, I tell him. I’m exploring Vancouver. I may go to Victoria. I tell him the hotel room I’m in is a hostel. I’m vague about the details of my days.

But the reality of my days is driving and beauty. I stop in Spokane and get Thai food. I spend the night in Plains, MT and wonder how I could manage to live there. I drive through Glacier National Park and say wow, wow, wow over and over again. I sleep in the lawn at an RV park. I buy fruits and vegetables and snacks and sandwiches at grocery stores. I get out at rest stops near rivers and stretch and breathe. I go to Missoula, MT and chat with a couple who’d planned to bike for several weeks who had to stop because of the heavy smoke. I spend the night in a queen sized bed at a hostel outside of Boise after a dinner of burgers and fancy fries. I see Old Faithful at Yellowstone. I wander a farmer’s market in Salt Lake City.


And then I come home. I’m early, so I sleep at my brother’s apartment. I tell Mark I’ve taken the ferry to Victoria, that I’ll be getting back on the PCT. Instead, I return my rental car and take an Uber to where he’s having dinner with friends. I tell the Uber driver my goal is to make Mark cry. The Uber driver says he’d have to be missing a soul not to cry. He cries, and hugs me, and looks at me like I might be a hologram, a ghost, a disappearing girl.


The truth is that in Arizona, everything feels uncentered. It’s familiar but different somehow, or maybe I am. The life that is my life but also hasn’t been for the last four months. It feels impossible that both can be true: A me that slept on the ground, walked for hundreds of miles, met dozens of new people, walked into each day not having any idea what it might present to her… and the me climbing into the shower, commanding the dogs to behave, knowing where all the utensils are in the drawer, driving to the grocery store without thinking. I have been gone and not-gone. I am here and not-here. I am the same and somebody different entirely, starting at the very beginning, trying to figure out how to make the ground beneath her a home.

Of My Own Making – Day 97: China Beach to Harris State Park

Oregon Coast Trail

July 27

We don’t get washed away by high tide, which is good, so we get walking. I am not feeling it this morning. My body is still saying no to the PCT and I few confused about what I’m supposed to do. I’m running scenarios through my head, paying attention to the feeling in my chest. It’s making me slow.

“What’s wrong?” Dexter asks.

“I don’t want to hike,” I say.

“You could catch a hitch,” she says.

“No… I don’t mean today.”

“Well, you’ve been trying to find a way out of hiking for a while now,” she says.

I don’t like the way she says it. It doesn’t feel true. I realize I want to be alone.

We get to a picnic area and take a break, but I want an even longer break. I tell Dexter and Energizer to go ahead. I stay behind to make lunch but my lighter is broken. I feel stupid and like I’ve proven to myself why I keep grouping up with people, like I’m incapable. The feeling is sloshing around in my chest. I try to breathe. I manage to figure out how to use the flint I’ve packed.

I look over at the parking lot full of beach-goers who could take me back to town if I wanted to. Finish the OCT? I ask my gut. Okay, it says. So I get up and head to the trail. Still, my brain spirals as I try to hike. It’s exhausting. I see beautiful views and don’t really see them. I take a wrong turn and end up backtracking walking an extra three miles. This is why you have to be in a group, a nasty voice repeats in my ear. I hit my head hard against a branch.

I think: I want to feel human again. Brush my hair. Wear a bra that fits. Smell good. Be around people who like me. Sit in a cafe and write.

When I get to the roadwalk I call Mark and chat with him. I get to camp and take a shower and eat with Dexter and Energizer Bunny. My plan had been to take the bus tomorrow, but instead I’m going to hike to the border. I tell them not to wait for me in the morning. I might get breakfast on the way, I might lay around camp. But I want my last day to be of my own making.

The Difference Between Lead and Light – Day 96: Indian Creek Campground to China Beach

Oregon Coast Trail

July 26

We eat breakfast at the campground’s cafe. We walk into town and we resupply. We catch a shuttle to Cape Sebastian.

It’s almost over, I’m telling myself. We’ll catch a bus and then I’ll get back on the PCT. And that’s when I feel a lump of lead in my gut.

What..? My brain thinks. Hey, we have a plan…

I start running through the options.

Crater Lake? Lead.

PCT? Lead.

Hiking? Lead.

Lead lead lead.

Bus ride? Light.

What’s going on? I’m thinking. Is this a bad day? Are you just tired? Maybe you need a zero? Maybe you need some time alone?

My brain is trying to get a reason for it and my body has no answers. It just doesn’t want to go.

I spent most of my life trying to ignore these signals, sometimes still do. But they tend to be right. They tend to be smarter than me. I wish I trusted them more when they were subtler, so I didn’t have to get smacked by them in surprise, like today.

I walk and I try to listen to how my body is feeling. My confidence is a little shot, I’m realizing. I’m not sure when it started. But I have been letting myself be small. I thought I’d come to the OCT to repair that on my own, and instead a group found me, and we stuck together out of convenience. But it’s making me small. Since when am I a person who won’t do things alone?

We have dinner at an overlook with the waves crashing beneath us.


It feels like it takes me forever to get to the beach. We find a place above the high tide and set up camp. I see one of the most stunning sunsets I’ve ever seen. And all the while I’m asking my gut, are you telling me this is over? But my gut doesn’t have much in the way of answers, only one: we’re not going back to the PCT at Crater Lake.

Maybe I’ll sleep it off, I think, and try to breathe myself to sleep.

Heartache, Anger and Walking – Day 95: Humbug Mountain State Park to Indian Creek Campground

Oregon Coast Trail

July 25

In the morning at breakfast Dexter tells me they have found the body of the missing hiker in the Sierra. Rika. Strawberry. I didn’t hike with her. Four people I did hike with were the last people reported to have seen her. The news makes me sad and circular in a way I can’t really name. My brother calls me. It adds to my heartache. I have to get off the phone in order to pack in time for the shuttle. The shuttle drives by just as we’re arriving. Damn. Dexter calls and they turn around to come get us, which is nice, although it’s clear they hate us now.


Most of the day is beach walking, and then a little road at the end. It’s one of our longer days, maybe 15 miles. I want real food, so I try to find a taxi but there are none. But there is delivery pizza, so we get that instead.

The OCT is coming to an end. It feels a little like it’s going out with a whimper. Not the trail, really – me. The trail was beautiful and a nice change. But I have the sense that I still haven’t gotten what I needed, haven’t found what I was hoping. What is it? I don’t really know.

I keep thinking over and over about Rika, and about the PCT, and about thruhikers and the culture of the PCT. And I realize I feel a little angry. We should have done better, all of us.