Two weeks ago, I pooped my pants during an 11-mile long run.
I have come very close to bowel bombs in the past, namely while hiking a ridge on the PCT after brazenly eating extremely spicy pasta out of a hiker box the night before, but I’ve never actually failed to get to a natural or manmade commode in time.
In this case, I was running a paved rail trail in the Seattle area—long, smooth, flat—and caught between a housing development to my right and the Samammish River to my left when my stomach cramping went from idle threat to GI emergency. I was .3 miles from a certain bathroom, and I was nearly sure there was a porta potty a mere .1 miles ahead. But it didn’t matter—I didn’t make it.
I’m not a runner by nature. I didn’t play sports growing up. My freshman year PE class required high school students to run a mile in under 15 minutes in order to pass the class; I achieved a 14:59, which I maintain required numerical fudging on the teacher’s part. I spent a few weeks one summer trying to learn to run with my mom, who would plod slowly and consistently while I sprinted and collapsed again and again. Another summer after college I started trying to jog to and around the manmade lake near my apartment in Tempe, Arizona, sometimes briefly getting a sense of what it might be like to enjoy running (sometimes my legs would tingle like they were eager to keep going even as my lungs spasmed) but never actually enjoying it.
But even as a non-runner, I did slowly start to enjoy exercise. I did a lot of yoga; I hiked a lot of miles. Two summers ago, frustrated by the hour drive required to reach any trailheads, I started a Couch to 5k training program to try to build cardiovascular endurance for the summer hiking season. My shins ached for weeks, but I caught the bug, and I started training for a trail half marathon. That ended in a pulled groin muscle. The following summer, I signed up for and started training for another half marathon—then coronavirus.
This summer I’d planned to do the same: train slowly for a half marathon. After leisurely running a 5k loop near my house, I started a run/walk program. But less than halfway through the program, I realized I was already capable of a half marathon distance. It wasn’t exciting. I needed something bigger to train toward or I’d lose interest before summer even rolled around.
Enter the Wy’East Howl, a 50k trail run at Mount Hood: 31 miles, 6,050 feet of elevation gain, 5,000 feet of descent. It’s July 31st, just under three months away from the flat half marathon I’m running on May 2nd.
This is an ambitious goal for me. I’ve backpacked 21 miles before (in the greatest shape of my life, although also while battling a stomach illness), but never come close to running that distance, let alone 31 miles.
The nice thing about ultramarathons is that speed, for most people, is not the point. Finishing is the point. Hiking uphill is encouraged. Walks happen. But there is a time crunch—I have to reach the third station at 20.7 miles within 6.5 hours; I have to reach the end within 10 hours. Those are generous times for flat courses, but elevation gain and trail conditions make everybody run slower. On pavement, an easy pace for me—the kind of pace I’ll need to maintain in order to cover 30 miles—is around 13:30/mi. On trail, it varies wildly, from 16 to 18 to 20+ minute miles. I’ll need to average 19 minute miles over the whole course to make that happen, something I don’t know that I can do.
Of course, that’s assuming I make it to the starting line to begin with. I’ve injured myself running before and it took me out of commission for months—that could happen again. The training could be more than my body can handle. Or there could be other impossible to imagine disruptions (pandemics happen) that could make the race impossible.
But I want to try. I want to go from feeling like an unlikely runner to a likely runner. So I’m calling this 50k training series Runlikely, because like the word impossible, it feels like it contains both sides of the attempt. “Do you think you can run 31.3 miles?” “Ha! Runlikely.” But maybe I’ll surprise myself. Run? Likely.
I don’t have speed. I’m not lithe and aerodynamic. I don’t have years or experience. What I do have is tenacity. In the case of the unfortunate fecal fiasco, I waddled to the nearest porta potty. I finished my business, texted a few people for levity, cleaned myself up and kept running.
I’m hoping this blog will be a weekly record of the attempt, successful or not, of putting one foot in front of the other. Even when shit hits the, er, pants.
This post is shamelessly inspired by writer and photographer Lola Akinmade‘s yearly work updates, where she tracked her pitching and income breakdown for an entire decade. She retired the series last year, but as someone who is still new to full-time freelancing, it seemed like a useful exercise for me to try to adopt.
Freelancers: I’m hoping this is useful in some way to see how another writer’s year looked, from how I made money to how often my pitches were rejected, ignored, or resulted in assignments.
Friends who are not freelancers: I’m not sure how much you’ll gain from this, other than a sense of what life is like behind the travel photos and desk pajamas, and an idea of what kind of money I’m making*. Which, if I’m honest, makes me both deeply uncomfortable and feel a little radical. Why AREN’T we talking about money?
*I think it’s important to also say that I am married and very much benefit from my husband’s stable income, health insurance, and desire for lightning-fast internet.
**The main image for this post is from canyoneering in Da Lat, Vietnam earlier this year. I descended into a waterfall known as the “Washing Machine” and then had to let go. Freelancing for me has felt a lot like that waterfall: slippery, terrifying, and it will pummel you, but if you go for it anyway (and nothing too horrible happens), you’ll get safely spit out the other side having had an exhilarating adventure.
The Year in Freelancing 2018
Articles written in 2018: 314 (I’m tired just writing that)
Editing: 3 short-term contracts with two different companies
Friendship is one of those things I find intensely fascinating, and it was fun to try to make friends with a bunch of people in a short window of time. The woman I talk about in the article and I are still friends, though she’s now moved to Bosnia to do work with urban development (she is definitely cooler than me).
This was one of the first stories I pitched that was for a bigger byline and involved reporting. It also started shaping the way that I viewed wellness, which is that most of it is a bunch of marketing hooey.
Outside is one of my favorite publications. I’d been following Jeff Garmire’s story after meeting him after his Calendar Triple Crown, and I was thrilled to both get this assignment and get to highlight Jeff’s story. This was also the story that made me realize I needed to be less afraid of pitching bigger outlets.
Fun fact—I actually wrote this story *before* I went to Vietnam. I told the editor I was heading there in January, but he needed it by December. I essentially got paid to do deep-dive research on my upcoming travel. At the time, it was the biggest amount I’d been paid for a single article and also the longest word count I’d written.
How Pitching Went 2018
Number of pitches: 159
This pie chart looks a lot better than it felt. That no response column looks slender because nearly all of my pitches were one-line title suggestions to editors I already had relationships with.
The vast majority of those pitches were for low-paying clients, so even when I *did* land an assignment from a pitch, it wasn’t moving the needle much in my bank account.
What was really padding my year was the fact that those editors also sent me assignments that I hadn’t pitched (out of pity for how many weren’t a fit? maybe), even though those assignments were often low-paying, too.
How Money Went 2018: ~$51,000 Gross (before taxes, expenses, deductions)
Overall feeling about the year: I was stressed to the max and at full capacity at every turn, often for less money than it was worth. But hustling this hard was a good crash course in writing quickly and effectively. By the end of the year, I was so burned out that I said “eff it” and pitched some bigger publications—and much to my shock, got the work (and the pay.)
Focus on higher paying clients
Pitch bigger publications, they’re not the boogeyman
I’d told the editor that I was headed to Vietnam and that Seattle had a sister city there that I was considering exploring, and she said to shoot her a draft when I was back. Instead, I visited, went back to my hostel and wrote up the story in a single sitting. It’s one of my favorite pieces of writing from the year.
I started getting into climbing this year, and as I tried to find climbers who seemed to better-reflect my body type, I realized there was a real lack of visibility for large climbers. The people I spoke to for this story were candid and passionate and I was so grateful that I got to shine a spotlight on the factors that hold larger climbers back, including lack of visibility in the industry and sizing limitations in harnesses.
I’d been trying to break into Budget Travel for a year and was happy to have finally done it and to get to highlight the Okanagan, which I had such a blast exploring this year.
How Pitching Went 2019
Number of pitches: 70
Accepted is clearly a much smaller slice of the pie, but it’s important to note that I pitched way less this year and I was often pitching higher-paying or new-to-me publications.
In other pitch-development news, in September I went to a travel writing conference that allowed me to meet with editors from top magazines and that was a great learning experience that also resulted in a couple of assignments. I’ll be going again in May (to SWITZERLAND!), and then I’ll probably cool it on conferences for a bit.
How Money Went 2019: ~$60,000 Gross (before taxes, expenses, deductions)
Average per article rate: 150% increase over last year. (That’s a bit misleading because if you look at just the second half of the year, it bumps up even further to a 292% increase. So my average rate *did* take a big leap this year, it just took a while to get going.)
Overall feeling about the year: SO much better than last year. That’s primarily because I had one major anchor client and a few other regular gigs that made money much more reliable and allowed me to focus my energy on assignments that paid well.
Other wins: I was smarter about the travel I did—I took two long plane trips (Vietnam and Chile) and a few closer-to-home trips, rather than a bunch of short trips on weekends, so I got most of my weekends back and felt a lot less stressed. I focused on doing more near home, spending time with friends, and pursuing hobbies rather than just work, work, work.
I need to stop sitting on my weird/complicated/SEO-unfriendly pitches and just send them, somebody might bite (I didn’t do this much this year but I should have)
A little bit of reporting before pitching can be helpful for some stories (and is less scary than it seems)
Taking fewer back-to-back trips means there’s more time to pre-research, which means I get more story ideas
Anchor. Clients. Are. Key.
If next year was an exact repeat of this year, I wouldn’t be bummed at all. But having things to work toward keeps me happy (within reason), so here are a few things I’m keeping in mind for next year:
Maintain sense of sanity developed this year around the amount that I was working and traveling; ambition is good, burnout is bad
Grow per-article rate (which also helps with sanity)
Maintain current anchor clients and pursue one or two more
Pitch ‘weird’ and specific ideas I’ve been hesitant about
From Siem Reap I flew to Hanoi. On the plane, I sat next to two Americans from… Florida, I think? (I remember the man’s name was Richard because it got said several times, but I can’t remember the girl’s name.) Yet again, I hadn’t organized transportation from the airport, and so as we got ready to land, I asked if they’d be interested in splitting a taxi. They said yes, and when we landed we ordered a Grab.
Grab is like Uber or Lyft in the states, but you pay cash. It’s supposed to be the ~better alternative to cabs, because the price is agreed upon in advance and you input your destination into the app, so you can tell if you’re going the wrong way.
Which is what makes what actually happened so funny: We got into our grab, and just as we got out of the airport, we saw a bunch of cars being stopped in the road ahead of us. An accident? Some kind of checkpoint? Construction? What was going on?
Our Grab pulled over, told us to get out (along with our bags) and get into a taxi. Uhh… what, why?
“We’re busy now.”
After confirming with the new taxi driver that the price would be the same, we got out of our comfortable Grab and squeezed our three American-sized bodies into a Vietnamese-sized back seat (our bags were all piled into the front passenger seat). Basically, I think the Grab drivers have a deal with the taxi drivers to pass customers off from the airport. Well. That’s one way to deal with a tech takeover.
It turned out to be just fine, but I was glad I wasn’t alone for that switcheroo, and I laughed quite a bit. (Things are a lot funnier when you’re with people when they might just be scary on your own.)
I got to my hostel and was unpacking as quietly as possible since there were curtains closed in the dorm (some beds have curtains, which I love, because it’s like having your own personal tent & it’s easier to get changed, etc, but then it’s hard to tell if someone is actually in the room or not), feeling bad about how much rustling my bag made before getting some street food at the hostel’s recommendation. (Recommendation = yelling in Vietnamese at the vendor to see if they were still serving and pointing me over.)
When I came back to get to bed, I was settling in, and another guest crawled into bed, loudly talking and giving a tour of the room via Facetime. Keep in mind it was like 11 p.m. So yeah, at least I didn’t have to worry about my bag-rustling being the jerkiest noise of the night.
The next day I caught a bus to Sapa. Compared to my first sleeper bus, this one was lush – WiFi, the bathrooms at the stops were super clean, some of the beds even had charging USB ports. (Mine didn’t have one and I heard they didn’t work well, but still!)
After the 6 hour ride, we got to Sapa and were in a literal cloud. My plan had been to walk to my hostel, which wasn’t far, but I’d failed to load the directions onto my phone, it didn’t seem like any nearby places were open, and it was so hard to see I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find it well even with maps. So I had one of the taxi drivers that were standing around soliciting us give me a ride. (I also negotiated, mostly because I knew the ride was short and I was half thinking about walking.)
In the morning I ate a pancake. The check-in areas was also a dining area and hangout area, and there was a Polish guy sleeping on the couch. Come to find out he’d slept there all night because he’d gotten in at 3 a.m. and the hostel didn’t want to wake everyone else by having him check in, and also didn’t give him a blanket, so he was shivering on the couch all night. And it was truly cold the night before, somewhere around 40F. I’d used the electric blanket that the hostel provided because I’d had trouble warming up. It made for a very funny (if very grumpy) story in the morning, and he proceeded to complain about many things to me and another American, Noah from Oregon. Noah and I would try to point out the sunny side, the Polish guy would complain more, and the cycle would repeat.
Meanwhile, my tour hadn’t shown up, so I called my hostel back in Hanoi to see what was up. Also, I’d realized I’d left my passport there when I checked out, but didn’t worry too much about it since I knew I’d be going back in a couple of nights — very lucky it wasn’t the day of my departure. After some running around, a taxi driver showed up with a name that wasn’t my name on his list and I went with him.
One of Sapa’s main tourist attractions is trekking. People can choose to do a day trip, stay overnight in a homestay or local house, or stay for several nights.
During the high season (read: not the winter, like now) the rice paddies are really striking. During the low season (aka, now), the rice isn’t growing, so it’s mostly wet ponds and mud, which I knew, but soon came to know on a really personal level. But even if the views weren’t top notch, I thought it would be worth it because on the way you get to visit local villages whose customs are really unique to them and outside of the typical Vietnamese lifestyle.
The taxi driver dropped me off at another hotel, where I rented rainboots, and then we started walking. My hostel in Hanoi had said there would be a van for us to drop our packs off in, but as we walked I noticed that nobody was carrying their backpacks. In fact, I had the biggest pack of anyone, because it contained literally all of my stuff.
There was a group of seven Italians, a man my age from Malaysia, and me in the group. Our leader was Khu, and there were about 10 village women who were also following us for reasons that became clearer later. Giovanni, one of the Italians, started chatting with me early on. “Are they bringing all of your stuff to the homestay?” I asked him. No, he said. They only brought what they would need for the night — the rest of their stuff was in the luggage room at the hotel.
Well. I had 25 lbs of clothing, electronics, and souvenirs on my back. Different strokes, I suppose.
After we descended from the main Sapa town, we started down a mud path and things got real pretty quick. The trails descend through the rice paddies and forest, and the steps, when there were steps, were steep. When there weren’s steps, it was a bit like boot-skiing.
OK, well, I am not much of a boot skier, especially with my laptop and camera in my backpack, so I just embraced the mess. I started squatting down, getting my hands covered in mud, sliding on my butt. The local women kept offering their hands to me to help, but I continued to get dirty anyway.
Eventually, I had a woman on either side of me guiding me down the steep trails, literally saving my butt several times. The rubber rain boots were absolutely necessary but were also making my pinky toes feel like they were going to fall off.
After a few hours, we got off the mud and onto cement, and I changed back into my sneakers. Around this time, the ladies who had been walking us brought out a bunch of different items they were selling — purses and bracelets and earrings, wall hangings and scarves. I’m not a big souvenir person but I bought a wall hanging from one of the women who helped me, and gave the other some money as well. Then they both gave me bracelets — I’m not totally sure if the bracelets are purely gifts, or also a sign to other sellers that the tourists are willing to spend money.
We got lunch, which was OK, but to be honest I miss American food. Cheese. Bread. I am going to demolish a pizza when I get home. Also, I found a chicken claw in my food, which didn’t help. Experimenting with new dishes is fun when it feels like experimenting, and a little disorienting when it’s your only option — and it’s hard for me to eat when I’m not excited about the food, even though I’d just hiked 5 miles. So I mostly ate rice.
Afterward, Khu showed us around some of the shops. She described how the Black Hmong — the name of the local villagers — make their own clothing. Harvesting hemp, pulling it into strips, spinning it, weaving it. They make their own indigo dye, then dye the fabric, and then use beeswax dyed with indigo to make it shiny. The beeswax trik only works once, so most everyone works on their new clothes for Chinese New Year, and it’s a major faux pas to not have shiny new clothes then.
There’s also a buffalo horn, which is used, she says, to relieve headaches — a piece of coal is put in the horn, which seems to create a vacuum inside and leaves a big, round bruise (possibly a burn?) on their foreheads, but relieves pain.
She also brought us by her in-law’s home. Khu is 23, and she’s married with two boys. She’d lived with her in-laws up until six months ago, she explained, when she and husband moved to their own place — a pretty typical series of events.
How do people get married here? I asked.
Khu explained: Often at Chinese New Year, or other big events, a boy and girl will chat for a little bit. If the boy decides he likes her, he kidnaps her.
“Wait, what?” We said.
“You know, kidnap?” Khu said. “He takes her back to his family’s house for four days and three nights.”
Does she know she’s going to be kidnapped? I ask. (Maybe this is a translation issue, I hope.)
No, Khu says. Sometimes she cries the whole time. After the four days, she’s brought back to her family’s house and she decides whether she’s going to marry him. Most of the time — 80 or 90 percent of the time — she says yes. She only might say no if the boy is lazy or she doesn’t get along with his family.
And for girls, there’s money involved — the boy’s family pays about $2,000 USD to the girl’s family. Which is why the son’s parents often are involved in the decision, because they want to make sure they get a good girl who works hard. It’s also why Khu won’t try to have more children, even though she’d like a girl — she’s anticipating having to pay for her son’s wives. (This is why it is good to have girls, because you can recoup on the money you spend for your sons.)
A few other things she shares — school is free from kindergarten to 15. After that, parents have to pay for high school, which is why mostly only boys get to go — often the oldest — and the girls don’t go and instead start getting married. About 90 percent of the kids go to free school, and half of the village goes to high school, she says. Less than that to college.
(Keep in mind, this isn’t a census survey — it’s a local’s perspective shared on a tour group.)
So maybe it’s that this reality has already shaken me a bit. It’s hard to hear these things and not think about your own life — what it might be like to know that your education would stop at 15, that your best prospect would be to hope a decent man kidnapped you and to start having children.
Then she showed us around her family’s home. Here’s an embarrassing truth: I harbor a lot of fantasies about a more rustic time in history. I think sometimes about whether it might be better in the U.S. if we still cooked over open fires and lived in small spaces and spent our days farming and chopping wood.
But walking through the family house after hearing about the educational opportunities for girls shook me from that. At one point — if I counted right — 11 people were living in a house with four rooms, total. There was a wood pit for cooking with a pot and kettle as you first walk in, a large open space with a small altar, and a raised loft with bags of rice. It doesn’t resemble anything I would recognize as a home — there weren’t carpets or couches or windows. I thought of how important it had been to Mark and me, when we were moving, to have big windows to let in as much natural light as possible in gloomy Washington weather. Here in the village, it was midday and the house was dark.
One of the Italian women seems to get upset, too. Khu is explaining that the boys go to high school and college to learn English, but then don’t do jobs where English is required — it’s the women who interact with the tourists the most, while men stay home. (There seems to be an undercurrent here that women do work while men stay home, something I’ve heard expressed from several women since I’ve been here.)
“Then why do the boys go to school instead of the girls? That makes no sense.” The Italian woman says.
“To learn English,” Khu says.
“But they don’t use it,” the Italian woman says.
Khu is smiling but doesn’t seem to know what to say. “It doesn’t make sense to me either,” she says. “But…” But that’s the way it is.
The Italian woman keeps pressing, and I’m getting more and more uncomfortable. “She doesn’t make the rules, she’s just explaining them,” I say, and the conversation winds down and we leave.
Still feeling unsettled, I walked and chatted with Khu and asked her questions. We bond a little because I got married at 17 — around the same age she did. “See, we’re the only two who know what it’s like to be married,” she says, smiling at the group. Khu, for the record, speaks excellent English — she understands really complex ideas in English and is able to respond to them, too, something that hasn’t been the case even with other Vietnamese guides who are in university for tourism. She’s funny, making jokes and laughing with us. She learned all of her English from tourists, selling to them like the women who were following us down the mud mountain.
Sixty percent or so of the houses here have TV, she tells me. Mostly they watch it for the weather, to know when to harvest. But sometimes they just watch TV, too. But not her kids — she doesn’t think it’s good for little kids to have too much TV time. And she feels like more and more young people are moving away from the village, or at least would like to.
Even as I am admiring the incredible handicraft of the locals — reveling in the idea that there is a place in the world where people, quite literally, make their clothing from scratch — when she says that young people are interested in leaving, I am a little relieved. I don’t know what to say here, really. Here is this incredible culture that seems to still be relatively intact considering the number of tourists who come through, but also… what makes a culture? And if that culture survives because it’s limiting what the young people might dream for their futures, particularly the girls…
Or is this just the American dream — the one I think is often more fantasy than reality — tickling at my brain? An ethnocentric way of viewing the world? And do culture and lack of opportunity have to be bedfellows, or is there a third path?
I’m not an expert. I have no idea. Mostly I felt intimidated by an alternate reality that I might have been born into, and an intense relief that I didn’t — that somehow I ended up in a place where not only was I able to go to college, but I was able to study something that feels relatively frivolous (writing.) And dumb for expressing the same sentiment I have heard so many times over and over again about privilege and education, and for having to be there myself to understand.
A couple of miles later we reached our homestay for the night. The hosts greeted us with a hot apple juice drink. After getting settled and taking showers, we ate a really tasty (no chicken feet included) dinner, finished with deep fried banana rolls. We drank what was essentially hot apple cider and talked about Malaysian vs. Italian vs. American lives. It’s cold, and there’s no heating, so we’re all bundled up under blankets while we eat and drink, until we’re ready to sleep.
The next day we decide to take the long, muddier route, but the mud isn’t nearly as bad as the day before. My pinky toes are crying for mercy, but it only takes us about two hours to do the whole hike, a woman named Gha (not sure on spelling) aiding me along the way. I buy a metal bracelet from her, and later a scarf from another woman, and then we hike up a steep, concrete path to our van. I have lunch with Lim (man from Malaysia) and the Italians before catching a sleeper bus back to Hanoi.
I flew into Siem Reap and got an in-person visa, where they took a scan of my passport, $32, and gave me a visa after waiting about 30 minutes in a crowd of people until they called my name.
This was the first time I hadn’t arranged a way to get to my hostel, which was about 20 minutes away, and so I decided to get a tuk tuk (open bench on two wheels on the back of a motorbike), which cost $9. It was so pleasant — the sun was down, it was about 80 degrees, the breeze was lovely. I swear the air smelled like cardamom (I asked a few locals, who didn’t know what I was talking about, and one of my tour guides did some investigating — likely another type of tree/bush/flower that smells similar).
Fun fact: In Siem Reap, the currency is part US dollar and part riel (local currency). Case in point: Most places would charge you in U.S. dollars, but if your change was $0.50, you would get the change in riel, or if they were short on dollar bills, same thing. Even the visas were paid for in cash USD.
Got to my hostel, cranked down the air conditioning and passed out.
The next day I was still feeling like I didn’t really want to experiment with food, so I ordered breakfast and lunch at the hostel. I wandered Pub Street and Old Market for a little while, buying tiger balm and a few postcards.
The whole purpose of going to Siem Reap was that I wanted to see Angkor Wat, or more accurately Angkor Park, which is a group of some 300 temples that are nearly 1,000 years old. Tourists have been going there since the 1990s, but Tomb Raider really skyrocketed the number of visitors.
Everyone I’d spoken to about visiting recommended a sunrise tour, but I also wanted to see the sunset, which ended being perfect — there are two main routes to see the temples, and each one is a full day’s worth. A sunset tour (which I started at 1:30 pm) meant I could see most of the smaller loop, and the larger loop could be seen during the sunrise tour.
The hostel I was at didn’t offer any sunrise guided tours, so I was signing up for a private tuk tuk when another girl, Maria from Brazil, walked up and joined in, which cut the price of the tuk tuk by half.
Before we left, Maria reminded me that shoulders and knees have to be covered at the temples so I ran back up and changed (I was in shorts) but all I had was pants, so… pants it was. It was a fun day, and it wasn’t nearly as hot as I’d heard people complain that it could be, though I was definitely sweating. The heat was a lot dryer than Vietnam, which made it more tolerable.
Folks are really persistent about trying to sell you things as you walk into the temples. The other surprise is one of the police officers inside the temples got really into taking Maria and my photo, telling us to stand in specific places, taking panoramas, posing us, etc. and at the end asked for a tip (I gave him $3). I’d heard about police officers sometimes offering to help you only to push for money in exchange, so I’d kind of caught onto what he was doing.
Sunset wasn’t a huge glow of colors, but it was still beautiful. And crowded. I’d decided I had enough pictures of the day and instead hung out and people watched and thought about how we all ended up here, at a temple that got shifted between Hinduism and Buddhism, all of us still chasing a sunset worshipping who knows what. Our cell phones, some would argue. The last slips of light on a horizon. History. Travel. Self-creation.
The next day was a 4 a.m. wake-up for the guided sunrise tour. We skipped breakfast in order to try to beat the major crowds. Of course, there were still tons of people at sunrise, but with very little planning I managed to crouch down in the very center of the Angkor Wat reflection and take about a million photos. Two people with big tripods were next to me, a man narrating the whole thing suggesting white balance changes and ISO and shutter speeds.
“Dang, I don’t think I’m going to get anything today,” he said. I looked at my own photos (mostly blurry, as I hadn’t practiced with my tripod before) and the sunrise in front of me. And… perspective is weird, I guess. In my hands were photos of Angkor Wat. A beautiful sunrise over a beautiful temple with a beautiful reflection in the water. A place I’d never been and will likely never be again, stepping into the light of the morning the way it had for hundreds of years, a whole human history I now, briefly, got to be a part of.
But also: I get it. Looking at everyday beauty — even the kinds people travel across the world for — and shrugging. Seeking bigger returns, the dopamine of newness, the urge to make something that hasn’t been made before.
The last weeks of this trip I feel like I’m starting to remember something about slowness. I spent 2018 running from one place to another, high on the adrenaline of trying to fit in everything I possibly could. This trip was, in some ways, supposed to be an antiviral to that. I wanted to remember what it was like to stumble upon things rather than seek them out, to revel in small things. But mostly I have been running around, high on the adrenaline again. Or trying to make a plea deal with the judge in my brain, You’re here, you shouldn’t be resting. You’re here, you should go on every possible adventure. You’re here, you’re going to regret it if you don’t…
The language we use as travelers feeds into that, too. “You skipped Ninh Binh? But that was the best part of our trip!”
“You came all the way here and all you did were the temples? What about the floating villages? The monk blessing? The local dance?”
However much I do, I am always missing something. And then there is me on the back of a tuk tuk, the air a mixture of gasoline fumes and cardamom, the warm air blowing against my skin. Most of the things that have pierced me have happened between the itinerary, when — quite by accident — I gave myself the chance to breathe.
I have some work to get done, but I know I’ll have the afternoon to explore, so I go down to breakfast and try to make friends. There I meet a New Zealand girl named Caitlin who doesn’t have solid plans, so I convince her to go with me to Crazy House and Maze Bar.
Crazy House — also known as Hằng Nga Guesthouse — is sort of like Vietnam’s Winchester Mystery House, except fewer hauntings and more creative architectural genius. It’s this sprawling set of several buildings that get you totally lost — hallways that lead to staircases that lead to narrow bridges to rooftops. There seems to be an overview that you can get when you walk in, with a guide explaining where to start, but Caitlin and I missed that and instead just wandered where ever — separately — and I was walking like my life was in danger on some of the higher bridges.
Think of it like a maze-y, nature-celebrating, fairy or troll house.
Crazy House is also a hotel, and you can rent a room starting at $50 USD a night. I was going to try to stay there (I thought it would make an interesting story) but they were sold out. Turned out that was probably a good call (I’ll get to that.)
Afterward, Caitlin and I walked back toward our hostel to Maze Bar, also known as 100 Roofs Cafe. It was designed by a student of the woman* who created Crazy House, and it is literally a maze inside of a cafe/bar. You have to buy a drink to enter, and then you’re free to explore six stories* of nooks and crannies, with steep, small staircases taking you higher and higher. We crawled through a hole to reach one floor, saw tons of interesting carvings/sculptures, and it was just a fascinating place to be. We probably spent an hour or more there. At the top is a really beautiful garden, also maze and nature themed.
Then we rushed back to our hostel to sign up for family dinner, and I needed to do some more work on an article. On the way, this group of local kids chatted with us briefly in English. “Hello, hi!” they said. “High five!” We high-fived. “Have a nice day!” It was really cute. I haven’t had many interactions like that — there are tons of tourists around the places I’ve been in Vietnam so I don’t think we’re much of a novelty — but it was fun to hear them practicing their English.
I squeezed in a bit more work before dinner, ate, and went to bed early to finish an article. I’d signed up a tour of the city the next day and it was early, so I got to sleep. But around 2 a.m. I woke up feeling nauseated and spent the next several hours in a “Will I? Won’t I?” puking gamble.
Turns out: I didn’t puke, but I continued to feel like I was going to. That’s the second time I’ve gotten sick on this trip — the first was a brief 12-hour lower GI clear-out — and I was miserable. I hate feeling nauseated more than pretty much any other symptom, and even though I’m usually anti-medicine and prefer to let things run their course, travel has brought out the Western medicine worshipper in me. Back home, when I have a headache, I take a nap. Here? I have a headache, I take paracetamol. At home, if I’m sick, I let myself be miserable until it’s over (last summer I had a cough for two months and waited 45 days before I called — didn’t even visit in person — a doctor about it.)
But here? No. It’s hard enough (even though fun!) to be doing all your own planning, figuring out a whole new place by yourself (with the occasional random new friend) without being sick on top of it. I fantasized about being home, texted Mark whiny messages, sent videos of myself looking miserable to my friends. I considered whether I would have to cancel my trip the next day, maybe my plans to visit Cambodia altogether.
Then around 10 a.m. I dragged myself to a nearby pharmacy, which first gave me Immodium (useless for nausea) and then gave me domperidone, which isn’t legal in the U.S. but is legal in other countries (Canada, UK, etc) for treating nausea. I’m not a doctor, obvs, but I took it for 24 hours (admittedly half-delirious) and it saved me. I basically slept for the rest of the day, canceling my tour of the city, but was well enough to take a flight to Siem Reap the following afternoon.
I’m not clear on what made me sick – ice? food? touching something and not sanitizing my hands fast enough? This country is giving me a whole new level of respect for immune systems, germs, and sanitation practices I take for granted back home.
Well, I survived the night bus, which was both better and worse than I had imagined. Better: No locals hopped on our tourist bus at night & robbed us, our driver didn’t speed or drive recklessly, the air-conditioning was in working order (these are the horror stories travelers told me about as we waited to board the bus.)
Worse: Bathroom was out of order on the bus (not sure I would have used it anyway) and the rest stops we stopped at were… quite gross. I mean, I am a person who has happily shit in the woods, and I would have definitely taken an open field over these rest stops. At the first one, I couldn’t figure out how to “flush” the squat toilet (this and other things I should have googled in advance) so tried to use the hose that I imagine was supposed to be a bum gun. (Bum gun: Usually a spray nozzle hose that is like the Vietnamese version of a bidet, which I have not used because they confuse me, but have seen in every bathroom I’ve been to) to rinse my pee down the toilet… and ended up spraying bum gun water all over myself. The other bathrooms were slimy and rickety and dirty. I used a lot of hand sanitizer.
Also: What is a sleeper bus? It’s hard to capture in pictures, but essentially it’s three rows, two columns high of seats that lay nearly flat.
My understanding is there are “local” sleeper buses and tourist sleeper buses, and, well, they drive all night to get you where you’re going. Mine was 14 hours long. The aisles are extremely narrow — I’m not sure how someone much wider than me would make it through — and the seats are one-size-fits-all, so if you’re a super tall person… it probably would suck a lot.
I didn’t sleep super well but did watch six episodes of Outlander that I’d downloaded onto my phone. The drive was pretty boring because it was dark out, though I got glimpses of some towns. What was really gorgeous was the sunrise from the bus as we wound up the mountains about three hours outside of Da Lat. But by that point I was exhausted, and ended up falling asleep for much of it.
So, Da Lat: Unlike the other cities I’ve visited which have been pretty much at sea level, Da Lat is a mountain city sitting at 1500m (nearly 5,000 feet). The air was fresh and not humid, the temperature at 9 a.m. was about 70 degrees, and I could not have been happier. A motorbike tour guide did try to sell me a 2 day/1 night tour package as soon as I stepped off the bus, which was a little forceful, though he was nice enough about it — I just didn’t want to spend two days on a motorbike outside of a city I was excited about.
I splurged on a room at a hostel to myself for a whopping $12/night. The first day I mostly relaxed in my room and watched Netflix. I’ve been feeling like I wanted to lay low a little bit and Da Lat was a nice place to do it. I did go to a bakery at the recommendation of the hostel, which was fun — I haven’t seen so many pastries in a long time, although I grabbed something that looked like a cupcake but was definitely salty egg-something.
I also went to Korean Barbecue. I was walking around looking for a place to eat. The first place I saw, the host and I had to communicate via Google Translate. It went something like this.
Me: Table for one?
Him: Frog porridge.
It’s not that I wouldn’t try frog porridge (I would!) but I wasn’t feeling experimental, and I was on my own — I have a lot more fun trying new things when I’m not by myself (drawback of being a solo traveler) so I put a pause on it hoping I would meet an adventurous pal later.
So the next hopping (see what I did there?) place I saw was a Korean barbecue. I sat down, having no idea what I was doing. The waitress helped me order and it quickly became clear that Korean barbecue is more of a group activity than a solo one. They set up a wood grill in front of me, put a plate of rice, kimchi, lettuce and raw pork belly on my table and left me to it.
Well… I googled it. Wanting to keep the pork hot, I put three pieces of pork on the grill. Great. The problem with that is when you remove the meat, the leftover residue starts smoking. The first time my waitress caught it early and replaced the top part of the grill. (Gee, that was fast, I thought.) The second time, she was busy, and her cat-like reflexes became clear: I was smoking out the whole joint.
Eventually, it got replaced again, and then I sheepishly placed my last, single piece of pork on the grill. Then the staff started dancing and shouting to a song, so I started filming them, and failed to notice the smoke rising off of my food. When I finally looked down, I had a half-raw, half-charred piece of pork and a smoking grill. I ate the last of my rice, paid (leaving about a 50% tip) and got out of there.
The next morning, I ate breakfast and went canyoning with a local tour group. So, about that. I’ve been rock climbing in rock gyms before (I am not good at it), climbed once outdoors, and have been afraid of heights my whole life. There are few things that send me into panic mode more intensely than my feet not being on solid ground.
But yeah: canyoning. Sounds like a blast!
The tour guides drove us out to the Datanla Waterfall area and we watched people practicing abseiling (descending a rock face using a rope you control, rather than belaying, which another person holds for you) on an official-looking course while someone took our blood pressure and heart rate.
My hostel had told me not to bring anything (I smuggled my phone with me), including shoes. The tour guides did have their own shoes, which I put on along with a wetsuit they provided, but as we walked down the hill I thought… hmm, these are really thin shoes. And when I looked, there were big-ass holes on both of my shoe soles. I was practically barefoot.
Rather than practicing on the official-looking dry wall we’d gotten ready next to, our group leader led us to a slope we could easily walk up and down and had us practice with a rope tied to a tree. There were four of us in a group: a British girl named Chiara, and two guys named Jacob — one from Sweden and the other from Colorado, and me. Chiara quickly became our hype woman, Jake (Colorado) said he was scared but not expressing it, and Jacob (Sweden) seemed pretty chill about the whole thing. It was apparent the tour leaders had the least amount of faith in me (I mean, I am terrified of heights) and had me go a couple of times.
As we finished up practicing, I pointed out my shoes, thinking I could maybe run back up the hill to fix them, but either they didn’t understand or they didn’t think it was a problem, and we started hiking down. Ah, well… hiking practically barefoot it is.
Our first climb down was dry, but right next to a waterfall. Chiara went first, and I went second — I don’t like to be first when I’m afraid but I also don’t like to be last. The climb was kind in the sense that you first walk down a slope before it becomes a sheer rock face. Either way, it ended up looking like this.
I pointed out my shoes again at the bottom of this route — maybe they had an extra pair in their pack? — and one of the tour guides gave me his socks. Which was very nice, and helped a little, but were also, you know… not shoes.
The route just got more epic from there. A climb-then-zipline. Climbing down the middle of a waterfall getting high-powered H2O blasted in your face. Going head-first down a natural waterslide. Jumping off a 23-foot cliff. Dangling in the air while getting power-washed by a waterfall before being tumbled in its undercurrent and spat out (they call that one the “washing machine”).
It was a full, super fun day, and a nice reminder of how rewarding it feels to do something that scares you (especially out in nature.)
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.
Here are a few things Hai Phong is known for:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.