Courage is not the absence of fear, but the capacity to act despite our fears.John McCain
As I’m writing this blog, we are in our final few days in Vietnam. This country has seriously stolen my heart. As I said before, I really was an #ignorantamerican when it came to this country and only associated it with the war here (which, by the way, they call the “American War”).
I have been traipsing all over this country and I am exhausted and invigorated at the same time. Is that possible? Not sure, but that’s seriously how I feel right now. I’m a bit physically drained from all the travel, and am feeling grateful to have a few days of downtime, but my mind is just flowing with so many thoughts, ideas, feelings.
So when we last left off, a few of us decided to go watch the sunset from Long Bien Bridge. It was très magnifique. Being on that bridge during rush hour was wild. It’s a cacophony of motorbikes zooming by in this really delicate dance. Such a beautiful sunset set against a backdrop of thousands of motorbikes zooming by. But then the bridge itself is over the countryside of city, so it’s just miles and miles of banana plant fields. So on the one side you have the insanity of a 9 million person city with an almost equal amount of motorbikes, and then on the other side you just have rural Vietnam. That’s Hanoi, baby!
Abby and I went to the Hoa Lo Prison the next day. During the Vietnam War, this was known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” (Now there is an actual Hanoi Hilton here…) This is also where John McCain was held during his POW days. It was interesting because the prison was built and used by the French during their colonization of Vietnam. The museum was very dark and bleak (it even had an original guillotine that was used there until the 1900s… insanity) when discussing the French days, and I’m sure rightfully so. As you move through the exhibit to its use during the Vietnam War, however, it portrayed a more happy-go-lucky story of how great the Americans imprisoned there had it. During these times especially, I’m constantly paying attention to messaging and how things are being portrayed as “the truth.” Coming from DC, where we are filled to the brim with museums, it’s just becoming more and more clear to me that you really have to filter everything that is coming at you. I hate that I feel this way and am constantly skeptical, but we have to constantly be on guard regarding the information we are receiving.
The next day, a group of eight of us left for our adventure through the country. We flew from Hanoi to Hoi An (are those cities anagrams? yes, I believe they are), which is a beautiful city in the center of the country. Hoi An was a bit touristy, I’m not going to lie, BUT I still really loved it. The architecture of the town is really traditional and the night market there is so beautiful. We ate lunch at the banh mi place featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show (RIP), and it was really good. The river that runs through the town is lit up by multi-colored lanterns at night and there’s a cool night market. We also spent a day at the beach. The famous beach by there is An Bang, but apparently that can get really crowded and crazy, so we went to a more secluded beach that was a-ma-zing. I have yet to have a true beach day on Remote Year, and as my friends well know, this Jersey Girl LOVES a good day at the beach. My tan leveled up approximately 4000% after this day. (Also, shoutout to @markbezerman for the awesome recs throughout Vietnam and SE Asia, I’ve used them all so far….)
We then headed up to Da Nang and Hue. Da Nang we went to for one night so we could visit the Golden Bridge. We had to get up super early and take the LONGEST AND HIGHEST CABLE CAR IN THE WORLD to get there. (I’ve now done two of the top ten cable cars in the world on this trip.) When I say this was the scariest thing I’ve done on RY, I am not exaggerating. It was SO steep and so high up. There were parts where you couldn’t see the rope ahead because of the angle and it felt like you were ramping up a rollercoaster the way it does right before it drops. On our way back, we got stuck, as in came to a full stop, miles in the air, twice. The announcement came through the speakers in the car letting us know that this stop was due to a “technical error.” I seriously lost my mind. I thought that was it. And by “it,” I mean the end of my life. I was screaming my head off. But, as you can tell, since I’m writing this blog and therefore am alive, we eventually made it safely down. Definitely a cool experience and am glad I can say I did it, but certainly don’t ever need to do it again. The Golden Bridge was really beautiful and gave us great countryside views. A grea
We then moved on to Hue, which is the old capital of Vietnam. Apparently Vietnam had emperors (who knew?) up to and through French colonial era in 1945. We spent a day visiting the Citadel (what is left of it after it was destroyed in the war) and the various imperial tombs (eek!). In general, the history here was really impressive and has earned it UNESCO Heritage status. The imperial tombs were such a trip. The tombs were designed by the emperors themselves before they passed. One emperor was openly gay and designed his tomb to reflect that, which was fascinating given the time period was the early 20th Century. Such an interesting thing to visit as an American, given the closest we get to tombs are monuments. (They also have a mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, but unfortunately, his body is being re-embalmed this month.)
Next we moved on to Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park. This is tied with my favorite thing I did in all of Vietnam. If (when) I come back, I hope I get to spend more time here. This place is home to the largest cave in the world. Unfortunately, normal people don’t actually get to visit that cave because it costs thousands of dollars and you must book a year in advance. BUT, you can still visit some other awesome caves and do lots of fun activities like zip lining (!), kayaking, doing an aquatic obstacle course, and other things. We also stayed at the Easy Tiger Hostel, which was truly an experience. While it was fun to be in that young backpacker life for a moment, our air conditioning did not work in our room, our shower was just a showered with no soap, and our towels were more like large rags. So I got very little sleep and was pretty unclean. I also realized that sharing a room with more than one other person, even if those people are people I know and love, is something I have outgrown. I can’t do it! I’m sorry! That window has closed for me. (How did I do that at camp for ten years?). Glad I know that now. Enjoy some pictures of the gorgeous park below.
After the park, we flew back to Hanoi on a little baby prop plane. Whoa, Nelly. This plane was a contraption that pre-Remote Year Abby would have never step foot on. Especially considering the saga we went through at the airport to even get on the plane. It was a wild experience. BUT, I did it, with only minimal freaking out, and lived to tell the tale.
We got back to Hanoi for less than 24 hours. During this time, I got a massage and a facial; a self-care day! The massage was amazing, it is at this spa that only employs blind people called Omamori. Honestly, some of the best massages I have ever had. And so cheap! As I was exiting, the craziest thing happened to me. A man sitting on a stoop started furiously motioning to me and pointing at my feet. At first I thought he was telling me something was stuck on my shoe, but I couldn’t tell where. As I moved closer, he pulled out a super glue bottle and started supergluing the strap on my shoe to the sole. I looked and saw that yes, there was a bit of a gap there, so I was about to thank him and walk away, when he began unstrapping my shoe from my foot. Then, he whipped out a large sheet of rubber sole and started cutting it out to form to my shoe. Soon, my shoe was superglued with an entirely new sole. Well, now he had to do the other shoe, obviously. I just sat there dumbfounded with my mouth agape. Once he was finished, he demanded 350,000 Vietnamese dong from me, which is about $15 USD. At first I really tried to haggle with him. I felt a sense of injustice; I was just minding my own business, walking down the street, and this man basically grabbed the shoes off my feet and superglued them! But, I had this realization where I could put my ego aside for a second. Yes, maybe this man did manipulate me a little bit. But frankly, he is a man sitting on a stoop waiting for people to walk by to do repairs to their shoes. He needs the extra $5 more than I do. My sense of “injustice” should really take a larger view. (Also, my shoes have much better grip now…)
I then headed into my facial, which was an experience all unto its own. It started out well enough, but then during the “extraction” portion of the facial, she pulled out a little face vacuum and basically vacuumed my face for a bit. That was it! I thought, hm, that’s weird, not sure if that did anything. But, ok. Then, during the portion of the facial where you should be relaxing with a face mask on, she started giving me a crazy massage that involved her getting behind me and flipping me over her in a backbend, bending and twisting me into various acrobatic poses, and cracking each of my toes and fingers. It was wild. Can’t say it was very relaxing, but also can’t say it wasn’t?
That night, a different group of eight of us (all ladies!) boarded the night train to Sa Pa. I’m not sure what my expectations were of Sa Pa, but man, this exceeded them. First, we got split into two cabins of four on the train, which didn’t lead to a lot of sleep, but definitely a lot of fun. We pulled into Lao Cai station at around 5 AM, boarded a bus that climbed up a windy, steep mountain, and finally arrived in Sa Pa. Once there, we were given time to change, eat breakfast, and get ready to hike. What we weren’t told was that the trek was going to be incredibly muddy, and so our guide showed up and told us we would all need to purchase rain boots and ponchos. So essentially we were about to do a multi-day, multi-hours-long hike in plastic galoshes. Pretty hilarious. We chose to do the “medium-level” version of the hike and to be honest, it was still pretty intense! The mud was super slick and although I had great fun living out all my childhood puddle-splashing dreams, it was actually quite a trek. We got to our homestay after a really steep final shlep and the view from that place was breathtaking. I seriously could not get enough. I will remember that picture in my mind for years and years to come. It really just makes you feel so small and inconsequential, but also grateful for everything you have. Our guide was telling us about her life. She is Hmong, which are most of the people who live in Sa Pa and farm the rice terraces. She was married at 17 to her cousin. She is 25 and has two children. She works outside the home six days a week doing tours (she has learned English strictly from speaking with travelers, has never studied it or learned to read it, so impressive), while her husband took care of the children. She had never left her village except once to go to Ha Long Bay. She was very happy and content, however, it seemed. Just really puts all your worries and problems in perspective. Everything is relative. Plus, honestly, the scenery there is otherworldly. I highly recommend coming here if you’re ever passing through Vietnam. (Sorry not sorry for the massive photo dump below).
And now, we are in our final week in Vietnam. After taking a day to recuperate from the constant travel and lack of sleep, on Tuesday we did a motorbike tour of the backstreets of Hanoi. I know it seems like I say this 100 times a post, but I never thought I would be the kind of person who rode on the back of a motorbike for one minute, let alone for hours. But this was really eye-opening for me. You turn down one road and you go from crazy, bustling Hanoi to straight rural country fields and homeless Vietnamese. I was on an old Soviet motorbike, which a really fun kitschy way for this gal to ride through the city. I also finally got to try an egg coffee!! However, at the end of the day, I had the worst headache I’ve ever had in my life and had to be horizontal for the rest of the evening.
Some final thoughts on Vietnam: the people in this country are incredible. They are so friendly and open and willing to help foreigners. I have found it so easy to get around here even though I don’t speak a lick of Vietnamese. Compared to my few days in Seoul, which frankly prior to going, I thought of as a more “Westernized” country and therefore thought would be easier to get around in with English, it was actually shocking difficult. (Note: still loved it.) Vietnam, meanwhile, a Communist country, has felt more accessible and friendly to me. I am constantly surprised by how little animosity they hold towards Americans in particular, considering the history between our two countries. They really hold no ill-will towards us and feel like “the past is in the past.” It’s wonderful. I wish more of us could adopt this mentality on a personal and political level. This country really has challenged me in ways no other country has before, but I’ve also never been prouder of myself than I have been in this country. I did numerous things this month, sometimes even on a daily basis, that terrified me. It’s taught me that you can really get used to anything. Today, I ordered a motorbike taxi to take me from my apartment to the workspace voluntarily. I walked into crazy Hanoi oncoming traffic like I was Neo/Trinity in the Matrix no problem. I see lizards and cockroaches outside my apartment, it ain’t no thang. Heat? Humidity that makes you sweat buckets? No problem, bras are optional. You simply adjust. Life requires constant adjustment, Remote Year merely speeds up the process.
I am so looking forward to Thailand. My parents are coming this month. I can’t wait to see them! I am also going to be hitting up Laos and Cambodia this month, as well as a Thai island that is yet-to-be-determined. Let me know if you have any recommendations!