A Night In Hue, Vietnam

We went for dinner at a fancy vegetarian restaurant by the river, set back enough that we couldn’t actually see the water. We sat outdoors, as everything in Vietnam is open air. All around was metal curlicue trellis work, plants grown over everything, with strings of lights around the edges. A romantic setting, perfect for making eyes at your lover (or, in my case, your vegan Indian friend) over a steaming plate of tofu. Just don’t order the hotpot or you may lose your eyebrows– the flame underneath is strong enough to roast an entire tofurkey. A hotpot is a pot that is hot (if you couldn’t guess) filled with broth, noodles, suspicious-looking green plant parts that taste bitter and kind of make you gag, mushrooms, okra, tomatoes, tofu, and probably a few other vegetarian things I’m forgetting. I learned that in India okra is called “lady fingers.” There must be women with pretty strange-looking fingers in India.

After our dinner splurge (143,000 dong) and the usual after-dinner life conversation, it began to rain. We wanted to wait it out, as it was pouring down, but the staff were making closing-time preparations, so we braved the drops to make our way back to our hotel. We walked, dodging bicycles and motorbikes, passing street vendors and customers sitting at tiny plastic tables on the sidewalk, stepping in puddles, trying to read the street names and not get hit by a bus, hoping the rain doesn’t come pouring down harder until we made it back to the hotel.

Walking along a wet street after it has just rained at night is a magical feeling, because everything, even the trash in the gutter, seems cleaned and glossy and there is potential just waiting in every puddle. Walking down a street in Hue after dinner, after the rain, being passed by rain-ponchoed motorbike drivers, passing food vendors selling what is definitely not tofu chicken body parts, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. This moment is brilliant– the lights from shops reflecting in the million tiny pavement puddles, the sounds of wheels splashing through, the smell of rain in the city– not dirty, not offensive, just the smell of rain on pavement and plastic.

This is Vietnam.

Back in Hanoi

Hey Mom and Dad!

Pooja and I got in to Hanoi via the overnight train about 2hrs ago. Right now we’re sitting in the lobby of the hostel waiting for our room to open up so we can take showers and put on some clean clothes. We spent the last two days (one night) near the mountain town of Sapa, where we were trekking with a local guide. Her name is Kuli, and she was recommended by Max. We took the overnight train out to the town of Lao Cai, then a bus to Sapa where Kuli met us to begin our trek. After paying her ($50 for the two of us for 2 days trekking, a homestay, and all our meals) we followed her to the market, where she bought food for lunch that day and dinner. Wandering through markets is always really interesting, everything crowded and dingy, and you can buy just about anything you could want to eat, as long as all you want to eat is meat, local veggies, coffee, tea, and noodles. And Oreos, those are everywhere. Oreos are vegan, so we eat them a lot. Pooja is vegan, so she’s been dragging me all over the place in each city to find vegetarian restaurants. I don’t mind because the food is usually excellent. The other day we had garlic -roasted eggplant, it’s making my tummy rumble just thinking about it. I’ve also now been up for two hours and haven’t eaten breakfast yet, which doesn’t help. Anyway,  back to Sapa.

After the market, we headed out of town towards Kuli’s house, where we ate lunch. We started on the paved road, which turned into a dirt road and a steep, rocky dirt path. Two other local women followed us, Kuli ‘s daughter -in -law (with her baby strapped on her back) and another woman from their village. There are something like 300 villages in the mountain valleys around Sapa, and most are their own tribe, with a unique language, way of dress and culture. The women are there to give you a hand when the way gets steep, slick, and muddy, which is often. After about 2 hours we arrived at Kuli ‘s house, where she lives with her husband, son, his wife, and their two children aged 6mo and 2yrs. Kuli is 38, and a grandmother. She cooked us lunch herself, tofu in tomato sauce, noodles, rice, cabbage. It was delicious.

Everyone in the villages farms rice, and while we were waiting for lunch we watched Kuli ‘s husband and son bag rice in 50kg bags, which they would then transport into town by motorbike. Pooja told me how they separate the chaff and impurities from the rice by holding it up to a fan. The good rice falls to the ground, while the waste parts blow farther and are swept up separately. This is something you learn in primary school in India she said. I remember vaguely learning how the Native Americans planted corn and beans I’m mounds, but we never learned any farming methods at Sharon Elementary. I feel my US public schooling has left we woefully unprepared for the world sometimes.

After lunch we continued trekking a few more hours to a different village where we spent the night in the home of another family. They are set up to accommodate trekkers, and have maybe 15 beds, a hot water shower, and a western flushing toilet (that was actually clean. I’ve learned that squatting over a hole in the ground is much preferable to having to hover over a questionable seat, which describes maybe 25% of the toilets here. The other 75% are completely disgusting) . We met two other trekkers, very friendly girls from England, and their guide there and had a very pleasant evening with them and the family. Dinner was another feast, prepaired by Kuli and the other guide. We ate beef and onion, chicken and some green plant, tofu, rice, vegetable spring rolls, and fried bamboo. I can now see why panda bears are so enamored of the stuff- it’s scrumptious. After dinner the guides (both women, as most of the local guides are) broke out the “happy water “– rice wine, which is a strong, clear alcoholic liquid I’m fairly certain could strip paint. Tastes awful, though luckily you take it in shots so it goes quick. Unless you’re me and cant do shots, so it takes you three sips to get it all down. I had to eat a few more of the fried bamboo shoots to wash the taste out of my mouth.
We slept on mattresses on the floor upstairs in a loft, under heavy comforters and mosquito netting. Mine, as usual, had a hole in it. Not quite as large as the holes in my net in Ecuador (which I could climb through, which makes me question the effectiveness of said net. But I think the bats that flew through the cabin and pooped on my bed each night kept most mosquitoes away.) It was a cool night, so there were minimal insects and the heavy blankets were welcome. It was very peaceful, to lay in the dark under a warm blanket and listen to the sounds of the river flowing nearby, and the occasional creak of the wooden walls or floor. I fell asleep in about five minutes.

The next day, after a breakfast of crepe -thin pancakes with bananas and honey, we continued our trekking. We only went about two hours, but the going was much rougher. It was substantially muddier (as in both Pooja and I were covered, while the locals somehow managed to stay relatively clean) . It was also steep, and steep muddy mountains are not easy to navigate. Doesn’t help that most of the rock is white marble (extra slippery when wet) and that the dirt is clay (extra slippery when wet, and likes to adhere to everything) . I was very proud of the fact that I only fell on my behind once, and it was only awkward because the guide who was holding my hand helped me to brush off my butt after. I tried not to pull on the guides too much, because I am a good head taller than all of them, and while they are stronger than they look I definitely would have taken them down with me in an inglorious muddy heap. After much slipping and sliding we did eventually make it to the waterfall, where we washed off our shoes and legs in the cold clear water and sat and enjoyed the view for a long time. I cant wait to show you pictures, the country around Sapa is breathtaking. I wish the paths had been easier so I could have looked around more while walking, but we did stop enough to get pictures.

We were not able to go too far, as we were on a short trek, but you don’t have to be very far from the central square in Sapa to be overwhelmed by the views. Everywhere around are mountains, impossibly steep-looking and a vibrant, verdant green. Houses are scattered along the mountainsides, strung out along muddy meandering roads and paths. Terraced rice paddies are in sections all over the place, like someone took a giant broken plastic comb and dragged it along the mountains. The terraces make the view look orderly from a distance, because the jungle that is the rest of the foliage is blurred into a solid green mass, all you see are the straight lines of rice, curving with the mountain contours.

Max spent two weeks here, and I can see why he was reluctant to leave. It’s a beautiful place, a much-needed breath of fresh air after all the cities we’ve been to. I like to visit cities, but I need my wide-open wild spaces to feel right again. Pooja is a city girl born and bred, so she’s taken charge from the get-go, showing me how to ride buses and trains, how to bargain and how to get hotel rooms. While I do want to learn how to do those things, I don’t really want to have to do them all the time. I’m a slow person- I eat slow, I walk slow, I like to look around. I like to be able to walk around and not have to worry about getting run over from eight different directions at once (they drive like Pirates of the Caribbean here: the driving laws aren’t really laws, they’re more like guidelines. It’s perfectly acceptable to drive on the wrong side of the street or on the sidewalk as long as you beep.)

I felt so much more at peace in Sapa than I have anywhere else in Vietnam. This is a lovely country, I’m just not used to being around more than 10 people or so in a day. Hanoi is definitely not McBee SC. However, there are a great deal more birds to see in South Carolina. I’ve only seen about three different species here in Vietnam, where most birds seem to be either caged or chickens. A friend of Max’s said she has colleagues who study birds down in Ho Chi Minh City, so I may make Max take me down there when we come back to Vietnam to collect his things.

Pooja and I head to Halong Bay tomorrow for an overnight stay on a boat in the bay, and then back here to Hanoi to do laundry and shower before parting ways. She heads home to India, and I fly to Singapore to meet up with Max, our mutual friend Joby, and Max’s friend Mallory. The plan is for the four of us to make our way to Nepal for some trekking. I’ll keep you posted.

Tell everyone at home I say hello!
Love, Lauren

First impressions of Vietnam

Currently, I am occupying space in the city of Nha Trang, Vietnam, in the apartment of my friend Max. His apartment is a couple blocks from the beach, which looks exactly like how it did in the pictures. The sand is grainy, like coarsely ground salt, and the water is turquoise blue, except when the river stains it brown with sediment from the mountains, as it did yesterday after a heavy rain. There are islands out in the ocean which rise up directly from the water, like steep-backed turtles, giant rock chunks with no sloping beaches. It looks surreal, and, as I did when I visited the Galapagos Islands, I feel like I’m in a dream where I fell into a National Geographic spread and it’s all going to disappear any second when I wake up.

Nha Trang at night.

The best way to get around Nha Trang (in my opinion) is by motorbike. There are easily four times as many motorbikes as cars on the road, everyone seems to have one. By law only two adults can ride on a motorbike at one time, but seeing entire families, two parents, two or three children, crammed on one bike is common. I’ve seen a man on his motorbike balancing 6 boxes on the seat behind him, the bottom one a flat screen TV, some in the middle other electronics, and on top a 24 pack of beer cans. Nothing was strapped on, he casually rested one hand on the top of the stack to steady it. Another man rode along with chickens, probably destined for one of the many food stalls that line the roads, strapped to every possible surface, so that from a distance it looked like his bike was covered with a giant feathery skirt, floppy chicken heads dangling like pom-poms.

Motorbike Max.

Max has a rental bike, which we use every day to explore the city. He picked me up from the airport on his motorbike, which was an experience. I had just spent the past 2 days traveling, which totaled four flights, the shortest being 1 hour, the longest 12 hours and 40 minutes. It was dark and rainy when I arrived, and I had to empty most of the contents of my backpack to find my raincoat before we left the airport. It was wet outside, and he had parked in a puddle, which I realized after I stepped in it and soaked one sock. He handed me a helmet, showed me where to put my feet and where I could hold on, and away we went. I’d never ridden a motorbike before, and this certainly was a memorable first time. It started raining once we left the airport, but stopped after maybe 10 or 15 minutes. Luckily, I had only one backpack, so I could hold on with both hands to the bar behind me. The ride to his apartment was about 45 minutes, but the roads here are generally in good condition so we made good time. It was beautiful, watching the lightning periodically illuminate the ocean on our right and the mountains in the distance, though I didn’t realize I had a death grip until we stopped to eat some noodles close to his apartment. Now, after a few days, I can jump on back and, after strapping on my pink helmet with a cartoon dog on the side (Max picked it out, I had no choice in the matter) take pictures with one hand while pointing out some interesting sight with the other. Max is an excellent driver, and I’ve yet to witness any accidents.

The city feels safe, and I don’t worry that I’m going to get mugged or kidnapped or even run over by a bus, though my friend Pooja and I did almost get run over by a front-end loader the other day while walking down the street. The streets are generally pretty clean, even though everyone throws their trash into the gutter. Max told me that the government pays the poorer people to clean up the trash every night, which gives them a job and keeps the streets semi-litter free. The buildings are chaotic-looking, and I get the impression you could easily find anything you could ever need in the open-air one room stores that line the streets. We eat most meals at street vendors, sitting at kindergarten-sized tables on stools that bring my knees just about level with my chin. Most of these places are where the locals eat, and serve only one dish. Most of the time we walk up, Max says something in Vietnamese to the woman sitting behind the table, and in a few minutes a freshly made plate of something delicious is set in front of us. Most dishes contain either noodles or rice, some kind of meat, and all sorts of amazing flavors I can’t start to describe. Usually spicy, always mouth-watering. The only thing I’ve had here and wasn’t a fan of was the avocado and coconut shake, which had too much avocado and not enough coconut for my liking. The color was a little off-putting too, a light yellowish green that reminded me of slightly off pea soup.

One of my favorite things to do is have Vietnamese coffee in a small glass, strong and dark, mixed with condensed milk and sugar, ice added. Coffee here takes hours, though the glass is only about the size of my fist. This is a savoring experience, both of the coffee and the company you are with, be it new Vietnamese friends, communicating with broken English about our lives in different countries, or old friends, sharing memories and dreams. I will miss this when I go back home again, where coffee seems to usually be a rushed affair, at most half an hour, surrounded by people who are in a hurry to get somewhere they think is important. No one here seems to be in a hurry, though I don’t think that anyone is usually late. Even the traffic seems calm, no road rage, no screaming, cursing drivers when the tall, white foreigners wander blindly into traffic and everyone swerves around. Even in the city, there is an underlying sense of calm, a deep peace like the ocean that sits next to everything.

Vietnamese coffee and an excellent view.

I think Pooja, another friend from OWU who is out here to travel with me for a few weeks, will be leaving for parts unexplored soon, heading north to Hue, Hanoi, Halong Bay. We plan on taking buses and trains, another new mode of transportation for me. I’ve ridden on both before, but never for more than an hour or so. Most trips here take a good 10 or 11 hours, so luckily the seats are comfortable and the views entertaining.

Everyday is a new adventure, and I look forward to experiencing what the world next offers.