Vietnam: Hoi An

It may sound similar to Hanoi, but this beach town in the centre of Vietnam is a totally different world.

After my epic bike trip from Hue to Hoi An, I settled into the Little Leo Homestay and tried to decide what to do with my life. I did some inquiring and found that Hoi An is best known for three things:

  1. The beach
  2. The lanterns, and;
  3. The cheap, wonderful, tailored clothing.

Well. I did all those things and I did them hard.  I had dresses and skirts and shirts and scrubs made. I strolled warm streets at night underneath a rainbow of lanterns. I checked out cool hipster pubs that played the best variety of music from all the decades. I drank fresh fruit smoothies and ate authentic spring rolls. I beached and caught sunsets and I revelled in the beauty that is Hoi An.

Not a bad place to end my time in Vietnam – I’ll be back!

Vietnam: Freedom is Biking from Hue to Hoi An

Best thing I’ve ever done.

I played with elephants, I took a random train adventure, and I stayed the night in a local Vietnamese mountain village — and yet when people ask me what my favourite thing about my trip to SE Asia was I would hands-down say it was motorbiking from Hue to Hoi An.

Easily the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done, during this trip I felt free, alive and proud of myself all at once. I had biked before in Thailand and Myanmar, but Vietnam felt magical. I couldn’t stop smiling, and even found myself spontaneously laughing as I whizzed through the beautiful Vietnamese countryside.

Open road, ocean-views, mountain passes and … me. Just me. Just me and that bike, going where we pleased. I’ve chronicled it below, but if you go to Vietnam … I know it sounds terrifying, but get yourself on that bike and go live the most liberating day of your existence.

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The start.

The bike trip too me approximately 6 hours to complete. I woke hazily in the morning around 8:30am, clambered out of my bunk bed and hesitantly launched myself into the 33 degree morning heat. Then over a delicious breakfast, I arranged the details of my bike rental with the hostel owner.

He encouraged me (pressured me?) to leave ASAP because he wanted me to be in Hoi An for sunset, but all of the traveler tips I had received told me that this trip could take as little as 4 hours. He was like a concerned Dad. In the end we finalized our agreement, I changed and packed my things, applied copious amounts of sunscreen, and before I knew it I was throwing my backpack and all my possessions into the back of a pick up truck that would later meet me in Hoi An.

I hoped.

I hadn’t really ridden a bike since Myanmar, so we did a quick review and then sped off to get gas. After a couple warnings about getting ripped off at gas stations (always pay with cash and always show them up front how much you’re willing to put into the tank) the hostel owner took my photo and promptly left me at the gas station.

There I was, holding a paper map and looking out at a huge roundabout filled with Vietnamese flags.

I was so nervous!

Embracing the face mask trend.

It took me a while to get going because I was so paranoid I was going to miss my turn off. I stopped a lot – for water, to talk with locals, for snacks. I was having a great time.

That is, until I stopped for a water break and wiped the sweat from my upper lip and found out that my face was fucking filthy. Now, I wasn’t going very fast, maybe 70km/h, but still I found rocks, fumes, and debris all up on me. Mixed with sweat and sunscreen, this was a recipe for disaster. Then I remembered that I had purchased a cloth head band in Thailand. I whipped it out, secured it around my face, and felt instant relief from the highway face-assault.

I can see now why most Asian people wear masks on their faces while driving their motorbikes and scooters – it really does help! Feeling badass, I carried on and watched the changing landscapes ahead of me. At one point, I took a random left toward the ocean and found myself a private beach where the owner met me on the road and hurried into a hammock beach-side. Within 30 seconds I had a beer and the wifi password, and I couldn’t imagine being any happier than I was in that minute.

After some beach time, I drove through Hai Van mountain pass and swerved my way around the winding road with a hot ocean breeze gently stroking my face. I thought the beach was cool, but this stretch of the trip was the highlight.

Lost in the city.

On my way down from Hai Van pass, I approached Da Nang, one of the bigger cities in central Vietnam. It was here that I got very, very lost and had to ditch the paper map and rely on my maps.me app to get me through the multitude of multi-exit, gigantic round-abouts that seemed to be around every bend.

Luckily for me, Da Nang has designated scooter lanes that improved my odds of survival significantly. After crossing at least 3 yellow dragon bridges, pulling several u-turns, and driving around the same round about 5-6 times, I finally got myself oriented and heading down the final highway toward Hoi An.

Water buffalo coercion. 

As I pulled in, I passed by a series of rice fields on the outskirts of town. These were markedly different than the rice fields in Sapa – they were flat, and seemed to go on and on for miles. The fields were busy with workers moving their water buffalo through the fields and taking advantage of the final hours of sunlight before sunset.

Since I was almost in the city, I decided to pulled over to check my paper map and also take a photo of the fields in the dusky light. I would never achieve either goal, however, because suddenly two men in Vietnamese hats came running over and hastened me toward their field. I barely had time to grab the key to my scooter before both men grabbed me on either arm and dragged me into the rice field.

Then, next thing I knew, I was being lifted onto a half-tonne water buffalo.

… I didn’t even have time to take off my helmet.

Hysterically laughing, I gave into the situation. Vietnamese Man #2 grabbed my iPhone from me and began a photoshoot while Vietnamese Man #1 made several hand gestures trying to get the water buffalo to look up at the camera.

Eventually they relented and allowed me to dismount the water buffalo, BUT, not before my leg caught in the rope and I fell smack down on Vietnamese Man #1.

That’s right, I nearly killed a small Vietnamese man.

Sitting incredulous in the muddy, grassy rice field, we both stared at each other for a good 10 seconds before we threw our heads back uncontrollably laughing. He then got up, brushed off the mud from his pants, and ushered me back to my scooter.

Good thing I still had my helmet on, eh?

Vietnam: Take the day train from Hanoi to Hue. 

I’M SO HUNGRY.

I walk into the train station at 840am, grumpy that I didn’t plan ahead enough to get myself a baguette sandwich from one of the street corner ladies. I hope there will be a restaurant on the train.

While I continue to delude myself that I’m not hangry as fuck, I run face-first into a familiar looking guy from the hostel in Hanoi.

“Hey, you catching the train south too?”

He smiles warmly, but my reply is more of a grumpy grunt.

“Yep, not sure which one though …” 

“It’s this one!” 

This guy is way too cheerful, I think, as he points at the S5 line. Sure enough though, it matches my ticket and I’m a little anxious at the idea of having to be social with this guy for the 14 hour train ride ahead. Luckily for me, the conductor motions me onward to a different train car, and I don’t see him, or any other foreigner, ever again.

I get on the train, desperate to find my bed because I barely slept the night before. Eventually I find it, and it’s a top bunk. I secretly curse the lady at the hostel who hurried me into booking my train through her, but get over it as I take in my surroundings.

I note that there are two older Vietnamese people already in my 4 bed cabin. One is male, frail and slightly balding. He’s seen some shit, I can tell. On the other bottom bunk lies a female, likely in her late 40s. She’s already cozied under the provided blanket and trying to snooze. I double check the number on the door and the bed, and then begin to psych myself up to launch my bag (and hungry body) up to the top bunk. The two Vietnamese people look very alarmed at the fact that a foreigner is in their cabin with them (or maybe it was because I looked so disheveled?) and we try to chat train logistics (ie: “Can I close the door? Can I open the blinds?”), but they speak exactly zero English and are visibly afraid of even trying to engage with me.

Super, this’ll be a fun 14 hour ride.

Instead of worrying about it, I wrap my head in my hoodie and promptly fall asleep. I feel so weary. I’ve been traveling hard for nearly 2 weeks now and I’m feeling it. My body aches from the overnight bus rides to and from Sapa and other tourist transports to places like Halong Bay. I hate traveling this way, without pauses; it’s not my style. I have to though, if I’m going to see all that I want to see before home.

Home sounds pretty darn nice right about now, though.

I fall asleep for what seems like an eternity and wake only to the creak that is the opening of the cabin door.

Where am I? What’s happening? 

The old man is buying something from someone in the hallway as I wipe drool from my face. I sit up to see a brief exchange of rice and meat. Damn Daniel, I’m hungry. How do I get me some of that? I try to motion for the lady, but she’s gone and so is her meat.

Not to worry, because 30 seconds later another man comes down the aisle with a similar looking cart. I motion and say my best Vietnamese, “Hello!” but he carries on.

FML.

Suddenly, my Vietnamese female roomie (who hadn’t even made eye contact with me until this point) begins to yell at the food-cart man to come back. He returns, opens his food box, and in it reveals some strange white, translucent, thin, and slimy pancake.

Umm. Where’s the meat?

I ponder for a second how hungry I actually am before I say no thank you and sit grouchily on my top bunk. Now what? I’m too lazy to get down, and there’s no way of explaining the reasons why I don’t want the thin, translucent pancake without an advanced level of Vietnamese.

Guess I’ll go back to sleep?

Then, just as suddenly as she had sprung to my foot-cart hailing rescue, my female rooms begins to laugh at me. She’s eating a baguette while laughing, and I am insanely jealous of her. I don’t need her to make fun of me while she’s eating delicious baked goods! Then, as though she can read my hangry feelings, she whips out a second, surprise baguette from a pink plastic bag and … gets up to hand it to me.

Game changer.

I wave it away, saying no thank you in Vietnamese, and also wondering what the hell must have my face looked like that she felt compelled to give me her other baguette??? I can’t take food from the locals! That’s so rude!

Unfortunately (or fortunately?) the choice was made for me when she stood up and plopped the baguette on my bed. I thanked her in Vietnamese, which pleased her, but she was only fully happy when I started eating. I devoured half of it in seconds, and saved the rest. Feeling so grateful, I then fell asleep to forget the rest of my hunger.

MEET MOON.

Three hours pass and I wake only to the door opening, again. As it creaks and rolls to the side I see a small, twenty-something year-old girl with short black hair walk in. She smiles at me, says a few words to our two other roommates and then clambers up to her bunk, which is directly next to mine. To my delight, when I say hello, she responds in English! We dialogue for a while and I learn that her name is Quy, (English name: Moon).

Moon changed the course of my train trip.

After introductions, I eventually ask her if there is a way to get more food on the train, and she offers to walk to the food train car with me after a small nap. I sleep a bit, too, and when I wake in a puddle of drool 2.0, our two elderly roomies are gone and Moon has relocated herself to the bottom bunk.

“Umm, are we allowed to do that? Change beds?” I ask sleepily.

She laughs out a no, and tells me that we can sit down there until someone comes in. Genius! We chat for several hours on the bottom bunk, getting to know each other.

At one point, we are interrupted by a family of six who swings open the door and kicks us out of the bottom bunks. Three women sleep below while Moon and I carry on our conversation on the top bunks. We learn that the family of six just got on the train without tickets and were sleeping wherever there was space. There were three in our cabin, and three in another.

They certainly needed the bottom bunk way more than I ever did.

TO THE RESTAURANT.

Moon and I decide around the dinner hour that it’s time to find the food cart. We set out, bouncing between train cars via precarious and loud connecting doors. Each train car is like a different world, and I feel like we are slowly progressing down some weird social-class experiment. We begin in our 4 cabin sleeper soft beds, moving to the adjacent car that is an 8 person, hard bed sleeper. After that you move into the soft seat cars, then to the hard wooden bench car, then to the hard wooden bench plus people on the floor, car.

I am made extremely aware of my privilege.

Finally we reach the last car which is the “restaurant”. It’s 150% the opposite of what I expected. There are men seated in booths that are littered with empty beer cans. It smells of cigarettes and old, warm piss beer, and boy, am I welcomed with gaping stares. I’ve gotten used to being stared at, so I just smile and politely say hello while thanking the stars that I’m with my new friend, Moon. She negotiates us a spot in a booth, and we ask to order. After a lively exchange, Moon trepidatiously looks at me.

“They only have instant noodles and sausages left,” she says.

Cool.

I add a beer to the order and then take in the scene. To my left there are 2 young, male train employees, slurping their beers and watching me with intense curiosity. Across from them in their booth is a woman cutting pig ear into long, thin slices. Finally, across from me, sits a man who ordered an egg.

“Moon! You didn’t tell me eggs were an option, I would have ordered one, it’s good protein.” I jab her side playfully.

“Umm, it’s not really an egg?” she responds, cautiously.

We struggle for 5 minutes to decipher what she means by that, and it all becomes clear when the egg itself appears at the table -it’s an egg alright, but there is also a baby duck cooked inside the egg. I had seen what the locals call, “Balut”, on a TV show, but that was in the China and I never imagined I would see it here. Sure enough, there it is – baby duck parts all boiled up.

The train employees and the woman cutting the pig ear can’t get enough of my reaction and they soon begin to coax me to try it. The man in our booth who had ordered the egg pushes it toward me, “egging” me on. Soon, the whole train car is on the peer-pressure bandwagon.

I am immersed in a series of in-language jokes and mockery, as about 20 Vietnamese locals full-heartedly chant while I gag down some Balut. When I can’t eat any more of it, they pour me another beer with ice cubes and pat me on the back. All I know for sure is that my bowels will probably regret this later.

BACK TO THE CABIN

We eventually get our noodles and sausage (mysteriously, my appetite is gone) and once the commotion settles down in the “restaurant”, Moon and I make our 10 train-car pilgrimage back to our cabin. We squeeze past men and women and children and food carts, and when we open what we think is our cabin door … we don’t recognize our people!

We close the door, confused, and a little embarrassed that we so confidently (obnoxiously) opened the wrong cabin door. Then we walk on, but as we cross over into train car 11 we realize that we are too far. So, we turn around quickly and find ourselves back at the same door. We pause, look at each other for reassurance, and re-open the door only to find our three little women from the family of six, plus a new man, looking just as confused as we feel. Moon quickly greets them and translates our strange behaviour, after which they welcome us in … and, story of the day, they laugh at us.

I laugh pretty hard too, what an interesting day this is turning into.

Instead of getting on our top bunks, our new roommates encourage us to sit on the bottom bunks with them while we eat.

Here we are, seven adults on two small Asian bunk beds, staring at each other. The three women still can’t speak any English, so they just smile shyly at me, but the man introduces himself as Cuong, and as he moves aside I noticed that he actually also has his wife next to him! Her name is Van, and I’m not sure how they all fit in this cabin without me noticing. Van and Cuong both work in IT in Da Nang, and they are heading back to their village for the weekend to see their two kids.

The group of us launches into 2 hours of conversation, laughter, ukulele playing and story telling, mostly facilitated and translated by Moon. Everyone asks me (as usual here in Asia) where my boyfriend is, and then are amazed (and worried) when I tell them I am traveling alone.

 

PHILOSOPHY AND CONVERSATIONS.

Cuong, whose English is decent, is very keen to ask me all about my travels. We chat non-stop for about an hour before he eventually pauses to earnestly tell me he wants more from his life than only work and money.

“We work all week, train home, and see our children. Not the best life it could be. You travel the world – what do you think a good life should be?”

The question takes me by surprise, since I never expected to be philosophising with a local, on a train somewhere in Vietnam. However, I had been thinking about that very question in one way or another for my entire trip, so after a few seconds I reply with my best guess:

“A good life is to happily feel alive in the world. To have adventures, large or small, where you connect to people through kindness. That’s a good life to me.”

I wanted to say more about being present and not wasting today for what may never come tomorrow; about learning the boundaries between perceived fear and survival fear; and, about getting to know ourselves by challenging routine – but, well, English.

The translation was more in the feeling of the conversation than in the words themselves, anyway.

Cuong and Van leave us around 8pm and I continue to chatter for a while, via Moon, with the family of six. At this point they have all moved into our cabin to talk to me. They are shocked that a foreigner is so friendly and willing to chat to them. The language barrier is extremely intimidating for them, they tell me, and they would never have willingly talked to me if it wasn’t for Moon.

Thank goodness for Moon.

Eventually, I reach my train stop in Hue and say goodbye to Moon and the family. It had only been 11 hours since I met Moon, but I feel so connected and grateful to her for making my experience on the train a memorable one, that I cry a little when we say goodbye. She promises to add me to Facebook, tells me to enjoy the rest of my time in Vietnam, and waves at me as the train pulls away from the station.

Then, my 15kg backpack and I hop onto a motorcycle taxi and weave through the warm, humid night toward my new hostel. I can’t stop smiling.

I feel like I’m in a movie and the end credits are playing.