Backpacking Through Vietnam: Part II  cover

Backpacking Through Vietnam: Part II

By ,


Admittedly, I know very little about Vietnamese history, and even less about its modern political and cultural awareness. Having some experience living in a country that’s divided geographically and ideologically (South Korea—where I lived for 15 months) I should have guessed that northern Vietnam would be distinct from the south. But like so many things on the trip so far, assumptions were becoming somewhat of a novelty.
To read Part I of this series, click here.


Rating: 5 out of 5 stars on 1 review




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Backpacking Through Vietnam: Part II

A Terrible Accident

An hour southeast from the airport and we were headed into the famous French Quarter of Hanoi.

The closer we got to our destination, the more frequently I held my breath as motorbikes weaved through traffic on a narrow dirt road. Our cab driver’s foot was aggressive. I had no choice but to trust that he had braved these uneven roads many nights before and lived to drive another day.

Then, just as I began to convince myself I wasn’t going to die, I saw a man fly off his motorbike and land face first in the dirt. His head smashed. The bike scrapped along behind his body.

The French Quarter

Our car slowed to a crawl as we passed the dead man.

A large crowd of people gathered and started to snap pictures of the mess on their phones. I looked away immediately, and closing my eyes I told Mike I had changed my mind.

“I don’t want to ride on a motorbike anymore.”

I was nauseated, shocked, and very upset. We had arrived in Hanoi.

Admittedly, I know very little about Vietnamese history, and even less about its modern political and cultural awareness. Having some experience living in a country that’s divided geographically and ideologically (South Korea—where I lived for 15 months) I should have guessed that northern Vietnam would be distinct from the south. But like so many things on the trip so far, assumptions were becoming somewhat of a novelty.

Hanoi

Hanoi

Wandering Eyes

As we walked the evening streets, I noticed a hardness to the peoples faces, in their eyes and on their hands.

It was down right terrifying when combined with a semi-automatic weapon, like the men that guarded the lavish homes of important state officials. Hanoi’s main attractions were everything you might expect from a Lonely Planet description, but on the fringes of town it was clear that the city was desperately poor.

Children ran around with no shoes on selling cigarettes, the elderly were hunched under ripped tarps to escape the sun; all while motorbikes tore through any sense of calm the city had to offer. This is f****** crazy.

Supply and Demand

It was hot.

As I strolled around the lake I could feel the tension of people who were scarcely getting by—confronted by people who come from far away places to take pictures of Uncle Ho, a political figure whose legacy is arguably the misery the poor in Vietnam suffer.

I became incredibly self-conscious of this economic inequality one afternoon.

Lazily walking down a thin bit of road not consumed with motorists, Mike and I were window-shopping. Prices in Vietnam fluctuate considerably—usually based on how much a vendor thinks you have in your wallet. It’s expected to counter any offer that seems unreasonable. But I think there’s an art to bargaining—surely the last thing a foreigner should do while traveling as a guest in someone else’s country is disrespect a persons livelihood.

Bargain Hunter

Mike was going back and forth with a woman over the price of a pair of Nike flip-flop sandals.

He was pretty sure that the price was too high, and also not convinced that the sandals had not previously been worn. He refused her price and began to walk away. She quickly crumbled and called him back.

The currency exchange in Vietnam is difficult to keep track of, especially if you’re like me, horrible with basic arithmetic. Since I was no help, Mike began to calculate the figures with an app on his new iPhone. He agreed to a new price, paid the woman and walked away victorious.

I think he ended up paying 9 dollars for the sandals.

The Streets of Hanoi

The Streets of Hanoi

Geography Lesson

Another significant difference between the north and the south is the curfew.

At about midnight, everything in Hanoi shuts down. Windows barred, doors closed, lights off. We found ourselves walking in the abandoned streets of the French Quarter, hungry and wishing we had bought beer for our room. But as luck would have it, a friend of Mikes was living in Hanoi and had left him a message at our hostel.

“Would you like to go out?” the note read.

Out, where?

Speakeasy

Ducking down under the mechanical gate that covered the front door and windows, we were suddenly inside a lively bar with several foreigners speaking English, mostly in accents from parts of Europe.

The lights were low; the music just above a hum and it was good. We sat in a party of five on a second story loft overlooking the heavy wood bar. I couldn’t wipe the stupid grin from my face as I became completely swept up in my imagination.

I contemplated what would happen should we be discovered. I felt like a pirate, an outlaw, soaking in my imaginary rebellion almost as fast as the second round of cold beers. Mike’s friend was a lovely host; she came with company—their names I can’t recall.

When it was time to leave, we slipped out a hidden door with more locks on it than I could count. The street was dead but still warm from the afternoon. I wanted to take a shower. It was time to be off the streets.

Welcome to Da Nang

Welcome to Da Nang

Centrally located along the coast, Da Nang is famous for its international port, which played a pivotal role during the Vietnam War. For being such a large city, Da Nang was quaint and cheery—sprawling coastlines were surely a welcome sight.

A Place to Rest

We arrived late in the evening without a clue as to where to stay.

By now I had loosened up a little and wasn’t imagining myself toothless and begging for change; lost in a third-world country. Blindly, we pointed to an address in my notes, and off we went. Our beach hostel was perfect: directly across from the ocean, ten US dollars a night felt like grand larceny.

The next morning was decidedly a beach day. I was so excited to sit and do nothing that I barely remembered to put sunscreen on. I suggested we go early. I was sure that such a pristine beach would crowd quickly. But as we took our sandals off to walk barefoot on the silk sand I could see we were all alone.

On the Beach

Other than a few people scattered further down the beach we were the only people enjoying the lounge chairs and sun.

Mike was a bit disappointed. “Where are all the girls in bikinis?” he complained.

I felt the opposite. I felt like a celebrity on some private oasis. Shut up, Mike.

The water felt like a freshly drawn bath. I didn’t brace or slow as I walked further into the deep. I put my head under the waves and tasted the salt on my lips. I felt every muscle in body relax, every worry lift away, as I floated on my back listening to the muffled sound of the South China Sea.

Our Private Oasis

Our Private Oasis

Setting Sun

I feel asleep on the sand between chapters of my book.

When I woke, the sun was beginning to set. Only when the sun started to go down did the sand and ocean begin to fill with people. It was a wonderful sight to behold: families, groups of playful teen boys and girls, elderly couples holding hands. I rested and watched the beach continue to fill with people.

The carless ease with which they embraced the beach and ocean was special—occupying it the same way I might sit in a living room wearing mismatched pajamas. It was personal and yet somehow everyone was invited.

Party for Four

While the sun was low, we made chitchat with several people lounging near us in the sand.

Two of them happened to be staying at our hostel. So when they saw Mike and I in the lobby later that evening it wasn’t strange they invited us to dinner. We accepted.

Our new friends, two Vietnamese women, spoke exceptional English and were just as eager to learn from us as we wanted to learn from them. It was wonderful to be in their company, locals who could help navigate a menu and shed some much-needed light on the things we had experienced to far.

Messy Ordeal

Our hosts asked us what we would like to eat.

Seafood was definitely on the menu. Inside the building I could see the colored tubs and glass tanks that were keeping dinner alive.

“Anything,” I said. “I trust you.”

Mike was a bit more apprehensive, but he didn’t want to be rude.

Barbecued squid, fish in chili sauce, steamed prawns with lemon and blue colored crabs. I was excited. Mike looked like he was going to pass out.

It was a messy ordeal, but I enjoy the slow and delicate process of working at shellfish. One of the women showed Mike how to properly tear apart a blue crab and get at the meat.

Spicy Papaya Salad with Blue Crab

Spicy Papaya Salad with Blue Crab

A Nightmare

The evening ended uneventfully but deliciously. We retired to our rooms to rest up for another long day of travel.

And then, I woke up.

I can’t breathe. My throat. Something is wrong.

My throat was on fire; my tonsils were the size off golf balls. I couldn’t drink. Mike ran to the front desk to find some help, while I lay in bed speculating what my friends and family would say about me after I was gone. Who would read my eulogy?

Mike barged in my room. He had tracked down the women we had been to dinner with and one of them was willing to come with us to the hospital. Mike pushed me into the waiting taxi.

Lost

The doctor handed me a green pill the size of a horse tranquilizer.

Our dinner host did most of the talking. Again, I was putting all my trust in her.

I took a colorful assortment of pills and hoped for the best. I was experiencing anaphylaxis: an inflammatory reaction to the shellfish we had enjoyed the night before.

The rest of the day was spent in a medicated haze. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t remember where I had put anything. Mike was clearly irritated that I had become an adult-sized 4-year-old. All I could do was sit quietly and stare off into some space that may or may not have existed while we waited for our connecting modes of transportation.

I was lost in Vietnam.