Some experiences, like Halong Bay and Sapa, are best described as a feeling, captured through images. Others involve storylines can only be told through words and narratives. You’ve seen plenty of photos lately, but now it’s time for some stories.
It has been an interesting week since returning from Sapa. The captivating scenery of the islands and mountains have been replaced with adventure and moments that will forever be burned into my memory. A few great, others terrifying… but that’s what makes for a well rounded, fulfilling journey.
I was going to combine all of my recent experiences into one post, however the past four days in Hoi An have been pretty intense and are worthy of their own chapter. I’m escaping from this town tonight and will process and write it all down during the sixteen hour bus ride to the next destination of Da Lat. That means a quick recap today covering the few days between leaving Sapa and arriving here in Hoi An.
It was our third time entering the city of Hanoi after the bus back from Sapa. At this point I was finally getting a vague sense of direction and it almost felt like returning home… a small comfort of familiarity in a world that’s constantly changing.
My American friend and I are traveling the same direction through Vietnam and later into Cambodia so we’ve decided to stick together for a while—unless something comes up along the way, we’ll likely remain together through the end of October. So far it’s worked out really well to have a traveling companion who shares the same goals, sense of adventure, and she’s a blast to hang out with. It’s a different experience than going completely solo but it’s comforting to know you don’t have to figure out this crazy foreign place all alone. Vietnam is a different world than Thailand.
We found an afternoon flight to our next city in central Vietnam for only $40 so without hesitation we booked. The alternative was $18 for a 24+ hour bus ride… to some backpackers the $22 savings is worth it, but I am certainly not one of those.
With a few hours to kill, we walked the streets of Hanoi one last time, stopping to sample the world famous Vietnamese weasel poop coffee, harvested with coffee beans digested by weasels. Sounds like a tedious process… but honestly, it’s worth coming to Vietnam just for the coffee.
After coffee we were engaging with a middle aged Vietnamese man selling cards on the sidewalk while waiting to use the ATM. The men here are quite taken with fair skinned western women and can be very friendly… sometimes a bit too much, but I take it all in stride and good humor, embracing their culture and happy to be let in. I had an errand to run on the other side of town and just as I was leaving the ATM, the man selling cards jumped on his motorcycle and asked if I needed a ride.
Now, before you make any judgements, know that this is how transportation works in Vietnam. Sure there are cabs and overpriced tuk-tuk’s, but mostly there are local Vietnamese guys standing around with their motorbikes offering rides, and it’s the quickest and most efficient way from point A to B. No one thinks twice about it here as the city is quite safe, highly populated and relatively incident-free.
So, I asked the guy how much and he said free. That probably should have been a sign, but I offered him $1 anyway and he seemed to agree so off we went. Within the first minute he reached back and wrapped my arm around his stomach. Not a big deal, maybe he just wants me to hold on and not fall off. When I started to pull my hand back he grabbed it and tried to put it down his pants. I quickly left his grip and said “No, no… no…” as that was the only appropriate English word he could understand. He was persistent and kept reaching back while turning his head around trying to kiss me. I instructed him to pay attention to the road while making it clear I was not interested. I felt safe enough being surrounded by hundreds of motorists but pulled out my GPS to make sure we were still headed the right direction. We were, and upon approaching my destination I had him pull over and finally let me off. “I come back for you in one hour and we go boom boom” he offered (boom boom = sex in SE Asia). I said “No, sorry” once more, thanked him for the free ride and took off.
This type of encounter might have shaken someone else up but if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that my intuition never lets me down. I could sense the guy was harmless, just a pervert with an infatuation for western women, and was able to handle it appropriately. I’ve since had much worse experiences which I’ll share in my next post, but this? Just one of the many stories from Hanoi. Variety is the spice of life (and traveling).
Our next stop was Hoi An, and we flew into the airport about thirty minutes north in Da Nang. The plane ride to Da Nang was a pleasant one hour jaunt and we landed in the evening, having no idea what to expect. Thinking it was a small sleepy beach town, we were instead greeted with tall flashy hotels, bridges lit up with elaborate rainbow light shows, a colorful ferris wheel and neon signs galore. It was a mini Vegas meets Atlantic City—so random in this part of the world. It turns out the backpacking population here is almost non-existent as the town is a destination for mostly Asians and other locals looking for a “classy” modernized beach getaway.
We walked along the river strip the first night, finding no crowds anywhere, and headed back to our hostel for card games with the only other two people there (also Americans). The next day we ventured to the beach, and upon jumping into the warm water, decided to stay there all day and leave for Hoi An the next morning instead. The beach was pretty much vacant and it was a day of pure relaxation—much needed after almost ten days of non stop action in Vietnam. I hadn’t been to the beach since Koh Tao and forgot how much I’d missed the ocean—we floated in the sea for hours until our fingers became prunes and skin turned a deep bronze. It was just what we needed.
I found the top rated restaurant in the city which happened to be a short walk from our hostel, and devoured tapas and Malaysian food and the best $2 blended exotic fresh fruit cocktails I’ve ever tasted. We left the restaurant feeling great and decided that even though the town was dead, we were going to make the most of it. Karaoke seemed like a perfect idea, and suddenly a large stage appeared on the boardwalk with a rock band in mid-performance.
Locals were making song requests on paper and placing them into a bin, and I pulled out my Google translator to ask a bartender how we could sign up. He told us to write down our names and song choice down, and we started debating the perfect karaoke song… still somehow not realizing this was not karaoke. We settled on classic favorites that the locals would know—I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, and Hit Me Baby One More Time. Perfect. I handed it over to the emcee who asked if we were professionals, then reality quickly set in and realizing we were way too sober for this, we ran to the bar for a shot to calm our nerves. The bartender didn’t understand what we wanted and told us to sit down but it was too late. Our names were announced through the speaker and we shot each other a panicked is-this-really-happening-right-now glance with the mutual understanding that this would be one of those nights you never forget.
Upon discovering there was no teleprompter, I Googled the lyrics on my phone and we stumbled our way through Satisfaction while the crowd of locals pulled out their phones and cameras to capture the crazy foreigners making a fool out of themselves and later share with their friends.
The song finally ended and our instinct was to run off stage, but the crowd was chanting “One more!” and we couldn’t let them down. We cued the band in for our Britney Spears act and this was much rougher than the first. The key seemed to be all over the place and I tried to compensate with dance moves to fill the silence when neither of us could come up with a line to sing. One guy felt bad for us and brought his kids up to the stage to dance and divert some of the attention away. As the song came to a close, mother nature finally stepped in to shut us down for good with a sudden rainstorm. The band and staff ran offstage scrambling to protect their gear and we found shelter under the bar, where we were offered rounds of shots to celebrate our performance (or the fact that it was over). We chatted with the emcee and learned he was famous in Vietnam. Others approached us, sharing the photos and videos they’d taken and we gained some new Facebook friends.
We ran home in the rain, laughing as we recounted the details, and promptly fell asleep exhausted.
The next day we caught a bus to the city of Hoi An, where the adventures have taken a turn for the worse. This is certainly not the Vietnam I’ve fallen in love with, but just like everything else in life, the highest of highs can’t exist without the lowest of lows.
Those stories coming next.