Returning from One World to the Next

Return

I returned from my summer abroad one month ago and already it feels a lifetime away. I expected the reverse culture shock to hit me hard; I often felt reverse culture shock from my own society even without the perspective of another world.

This picture is from Narita, Japan. I had a ten-hour layover so I did some exploring. I found some turtles.

This picture is from Narita, Japan. I had a ten-hour layover so I did some exploring. I found some turtles.

Instead, I assimilated right back into the place I feel most at home: my cross country team. I went straight from my life in Vietnam, where the one thing closest to my heart—running—was understood by no one, to an empty college campus populated solely with my fellow student athletes chasing similar dreams. My life went from running and teaching and figuring out how to live in Vietnam, to just running (at least for a few weeks). I appreciated every tiny detail of my Oregon life: waking up to fresh air, topping my oatmeal with chia seeds, wearing sweatshirts.

Also in Narita. There was a massive garden area and I fell in love with Japan.

Also in Narita. There was a massive garden area and I fell in love with Japan.

Among all that, I never forgot about Vietnam. I certainly missed things about my life there, especially the people. But I found myself hesitant to discuss my experience in detail with people who I did not expect to understand it all. My parents understood, my coach understood, my well-travelled peers understood; but how could I expect even some of my closest friends to possibly understand what it feels like to drive an electric scooter through a flood during Hanoi rush hour? How could they imagine the light in my eighth graders’ eyes when they realized my English words meant something to them? Certain details felt so intricate and precious to me that I hardly even tried to share them. My experience will never be anything but wholly my own, but it did change me, and that affects everyone in some way.

More Japanese garden beauty. A lovely transition between Vietnam and the United States, really.

More Japanese garden beauty. A lovely transition between Vietnam and the United States, really.

When people ask me how I changed this summer, I tell them I aged eight years. Because the best way I know how to encompass all that I learned and how I matured is to change my ‘real’ age from 20 to someone much older. I feel wise in the least pretentious way and armed with enough life knowledge to take on the world. I know I could not have gained this much independence in Corvallis and I doubt I could have achieved it anywhere else in the world.

There were cool sculptures everywhere near the temple.

There were cool sculptures everywhere near the temple.

Vietnam is a fascinating, wonderful, and difficult country. I could not live there forever and I plan to experience many other countries before I return, but I will return. I have an entire country south of Hanoi left to see. Still, Vietnam taught me that simplicity does not repel complexity, that I can do anything, and, most importantly, that there is a big world out there to explore.

This is possibly my favorite picture taken of me in Vietnam. Clearly, cows are my friends everywhere.

This is possibly my favorite picture taken of me in Vietnam. Clearly, cows are my friends everywhere.

I still struggle to share all the details of my summer, even on this platform, but it’s obvious to me that I became a better person; hopefully that shows. Vietnam was nothing like I expected and challenged me in every dimension. But I know myself and the world more; so, I am ready to go out and make it a little better every day. There is nothing left that can stop me.

So(u)lo Adventures: A Lot of Pictures

Hanoi, Traveling

Since learning how to live alone in Hanoi, I have adopted the unfortunate mindset that if I can do that, then I can do anything. This has led to dangerous character traits like fierce independence and fearlessness, which, in turn, has led to some serious solo adventures.

Obligatory cactus selfie because when you adventure alone, you have to make friends with plants.

Obligatory selfie with cactus because when you adventure alone, you make friends with plants.

My weekends happen on Thursday and Friday, so everyone has either work or school and I’m left to my own creativity to fill the free days. After two full weeks in the city, I was desperate for nature and hopped on a bus to Ba Vi National Park with no plan and no transportation once I got there. Turns out that park is designed for motorbikes to navigate its various attractions, so my feet could only show me a few things, but I was happy enough to be surrounded by green that I didn’t mind. Plus, a nice British couple saved me a few kilometers when they gave me a ride up.

I found a cactus garden even though the gate was technically 'closed.'

I found a cactus garden/greenhouse even though the gate was technically ‘closed.’

Last week, I made some more hasty decisions that turned out a lot better than they should have. I found a motorbike tour company called Freebird Adventures and could not resist with a name like that. For the sake of my bank account, I opted for a one-day tour in the countryside, and Minh, my fantastic tour guide and driver, picked me up at 8:30 a.m. for a full day of mountains, lakes, and lotus seeds. Minh prides himself on showing people the ‘real’ Vietnam, so our destinations had more cows than people and don’t show up on a Google search. I ended the day re-ignited from nature and with a very sore butt from sitting on a motorbike for ten hours.

Minh, my most excellent leader.

Minh, my most excellent leader.

So many ducks (go beavs).

So many ducks (go beavs).

Also so many cows (still go beavs).

Also so many cows (still go beavs).

The male version of the second most important figure in Buddhism...I think (a giant statue).

The male version of the second most important figure in Buddhism…I think (a giant statue).

Such rock. Very wow.

Such rock. Very wow.

And then we got back to Hanoi.

And then we got back to Hanoi.

The next day, aware that I had exactly three free days left and wanted to see several things on those days, I decided to attempt a one-day trip to Cuc Phuong National Park. When I told Minh my plan the night before, he said it could not be done, so after that I obviously had to do it. I took a 2.5-hour bus followed by a wild 20-minute xe om (motorbike taxi) ride and arrived at the park at 11:45 a.m. I needed to return to the bus station by 2 p.m. to get back to Hanoi in time for dinner with Minh (he invited me to dine with his family because he is genuinely the friendliest), so I hired my xe om driver to zip me to the Cave of the Prehistoric Man and back to the Endangered Primate Rescue Center in those two hours. I mostly wanted to see the latter, but it was closed for lunch time and did not reopen until 1:30 p.m.

Xe om xe om xe om (check the blur lines in this action shot).

Xe om xe om xe om (check the blur lines in this action shot).

Besides the time issue, I also had a money issue. I had a limited amount of cash and between admission to the park and primate center, my bus fare home, and the xe om fee, I had to barter until I had exactly enough to cover it. When I got to the Cave, a woman offered me a flashlight to rent for 10,000 dong (less than $0.50), but I could not even afford that and instead explored the (very large, very dark) cave with the red focusing light on my camera. Inside, I happened upon a rusty ladder, followed by two more rusty ladders, and decided it would be a good idea to climb them. Near the top, I began to see real light from the sun, and I eventually emerged into an even bigger cave that opened out into the world via a cliff. It was a pretty spectacular reward for some literal blind faith.

Obligatory cave selfie (in case it turned into 127 Hours and I got stuck forever).

Obligatory cave selfie (in case it turned into 127 Hours and I got stuck forever).

Back at the park entrance, I waited eagerly for the primate center to open, but I had to wait for another group to come before the tour guide let me in, so we did not get inside the center until 1:35 p.m., which was the time I realistically needed to leave to get back to the bus station in time. I allowed myself five magical minutes with the monkeys, fell in love with them, and then ran back to the entrance in my birkenstocks and hopped onto the motorbike at 1:41 p.m. I knew I could trust my driver to go really, really fast, and we arrived at the bus station at exactly 2 p.m. Once I paid that fare, I had exactly 7,500 dong left to my name. The bus fare from the Hanoi station to my apartment is 7,000 dong. Like I said, I can do anything.

One of my proudest moments.

One of my proudest moments (this is $0.31).

The next morning, mid-way through my long run, I decided to continue my adventure streak and attempt to run all the way around West Lake. I run along West Lake every morning and have completed out-and-back long runs from both ends, but I wanted to string it all together because I love loops, I knew it was around 17-19 km in circumference, and I wanted to be able to say I ran all the way around West Lake. Including the time to and from my apartment to the lake, it took me 100 beautiful minutes. And I’ll probably do it again this Saturday.

Rain and Electric Scooters: Welcome Back to Hanoi

Hanoi

A lot has changed since my last post. As in, everything.

Due to circumstances out of my control that I did not want or expect, I had to leave Bac Giang and move to Hanoi. I now live alone in a shared apartment, and while I miss my Bac Giang host family dearly, the freedom to cook my own meals is incredible. None of my Vietnamese friends believe me when I tell them I can cook for myself, but I have become a regular at the market down the street, where I attempt to barter my way to cheap fruit and vegetables. Obviously, every fruit here is better than in the United States, so I eat watermelon, avocado, green peaches, and bananas in abundance.

We made guacamole and I almost cried it made me so happy.

We made guacamole and I almost cried it made me so happy.

Work has been the biggest shift. I now intern at Apollo, an English language center, where I work as a teaching assistant and a tutor since I do not have the necessary certification to teach there. Most of the teachers are British, so the accents are fun, but that means the students are learning a different kind of English than I speak–yoghurt, to-mah-to, lemonade as soda, it’s all exotic.

At first, I kind of hated Hanoi. I grew up in a town of 1,000 people and go to college in a town of 50,000, so being ripped from the countryside and planted in this seven million-person maze overwhelmed me, to say the least. I hated the pollution and the insanity and the difficulty in transportation, but once I rented an electric scooter, my world changed. The first few days, I added hours to my commute time because I got lost every time I got on the scooter. On my first attempt to get home from work alone, at 8 p.m., I got so lost that a couple of angelic strangers had to lead the way all the way back to my street.

The best thing about getting lost here is that strangers will always help me out; I also had a habit of getting lost at the end of my runs for a few days and once again, I needed only show someone my street name and they pointed me in the right direction. Once I figured out how to get places more or less on the first try, I had a secret weapon at my disposal that could take me to any store (for oatmeal and peanut butter), Mexican food place (to ‘satisfy’ my Chipotle craving), or Thai place (because I remembered how close I am to Thailand) I imagined. And then I realized that Hanoi is full of interesting places and I can let my full independent wings fly here.

The most expensive meal I've had in Hanoi (~$7) but so, so worth it.

The most expensive meal I’ve had in Hanoi (~$7) but so, so worth it.

When I visited Hoa Lo Prison, a place built by the French to imprison and torture Vietnamese, then later used by the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War (the ‘American War’ here) to imprison American pilots, I fell in love with Hanoi. The realness and history surrounding the prison moved me, and it became apparent just how many places I had yet to discover in this massive city. On that same day, I also visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, which was quite a strange experience. Basically, we stood in line and went through some security checks, then walked into a large, cold, dark building, kept walking as we passed by a wax replica of Ho Chi Minh’s body, and walked right out. The line for the mausoleum begins near my alley, and every morning I see hundreds of people waiting for that apparently very important walkthrough.

The only picture I took at Hoa Lo, but it captures the essence well.

The only picture I took at Hoa Lo, but it captures the essence well.

So, now I have less than three weeks left and a lot of Hanoi to experience. I’m grateful that I have a chance to test (and strengthen) my resilience and adaptability in this giant maze, and I know that this very unexpected change will result in a little bit of wisdom and a lot of opportunities.

We made our own pottery and I got a little too excited spinning the wheel.

We made our own pottery and I got a little too excited spinning the wheel.

Trips on Trips: Halong Bay and Fansipan

Traveling

In the last two weekends, I added and immediately crossed off two items on my bucket list.

First, I went deep water soloing in Halong Bay, one of the World Wonders. Deep water soloing is as cool as the name sounds: we kayaked out to a big rock with an overhang above a cave and bouldered (rock climbing without a rope or harness) over the water until we either jumped or fell off. Then we slept on the top deck of a boat and woke up the next day to do some more climbing (this time with a rope and harness). Unfortunately, I fell near the top of a route and punctured my finger so my climbing was cut short, but this was my first time climbing outside and it beats indoor climbing in every category. Also unfortunately, I failed to take many pictures on the whole trip. On the boat ride back to shore, we encountered a thunderstorm and downpour that also caused a flood in the first part of our drive home. The whole weekend was fueled by adventure.

Halong Bay is a bunch of rocks in water and it's awesome.

Halong Bay is a bunch of rocks in water and it’s awesome.

There were boat houses everywhere.

There were boat houses everywhere.

Living on a boat for two days makes everything look majestic.

Living on a boat for two days makes everything look majestic.

Second, I conquered the rooftop (i.e. highest mountain) of Indochina, Fansipan. On Saturday, I ventured with two other interns, Alanna and Natasha, to Sapa, a magical mountain town where the air is cool and the views are unmatched. Despite the semi-touristy vibe in the town and the ‘expensive’ prices (six dollars for a meal is spendy in Vietnam), I adored Sapa. I loved the climate, the colors, the mountains, and even the local women who followed us everywhere and expertly talked us into buying all the things (‘Hello! Where are you from? You buy from me later? You need bracelet? Bag? Ring? Music? Earring for your sister? You can’t say no forever! Why you buy from her but not from me?’ etc.).

The view from the rooftop of our hostel.

The view of Sapa from the rooftop of our hostel.

Rice paddies on rice paddies on rice paddies.

Rice paddies on rice paddies on rice paddies.

Sunday featured the high point of my trip, literally. We embarked on our day-long journey at 6:30 a.m. and spent the next 11.5 hours trekking up and down over rocks, streams, mud, and ladders with burning legs and ridiculous views. We overcame a lost comrade (she turned back early), a debilitating foot cramp (solved with massage oil and banana chips), and my entirely inadequate shoes (minimalist running shoes do not equal hiking boots) to reach the top (and more importantly, bottom) of Fansipan mostly unscathed. It was grueling and relentless and breathtaking. Technically speaking, the most difficult trek I have done; there were times when I felt close to disaster due to my worthless footwear. Plus, most people do Fansipan in two or three days, so doing it in one was a feat in itself.

This wasn't even at the top.

This wasn’t even at the top.

Our path was basically to keep going up and up and up.

Our path was basically to keep going up and up and up.

Some parts were legitimately terrifying.

Some parts were legitimately terrifying.

Our fearless leader (who has done Fansipan about 300 times).

Our fearless leader (who has done Fansipan about 300 times).

At the top, seven hours deep, Alanna and I shotgunned beers to celebrate. When we began the journey down, I immediately fell several times, which could be a result of the high altitude beer but was probably more related to the combination of ankle-deep mud, vertical directions, and my shoes. I don’t use the word perfect lightly, but we chose a perfect day to do Fansipan. It did not rain at all, we actually had a view at the top (that never happens), and the sun even came out on the way down. We kept waiting for a downpour to happen or a bone to break, but our only disappointment came when we returned to our hostel and learned that, contrary to our previous belief, we did not actually get a free margarita and burrito like we had pictured for the last three hours of the trek. So, we paid for them instead and signed the Fansipan Wall of Fame.

Victory shotguns.

Victory shotguns (go North America).

Alanna looking as majestic as the view.

Alanna looking as majestic as the view.

Fansipan: 10/10 would recommend. Doing it in old running shoes: 10/10 would not recommend.

Fansipan: 10/10 would recommend. Doing it in old running shoes: 10/10 would not recommend.

We signed the Wall of Fame so we made history forever. (not pictured: the medals and certificates we got)

We signed the Wall of Fame so we made history forever. (not pictured: the medals and certificates we got)

The next day, I managed to go for a run and we got cheap massages that didn’t help much, but my body still hurts.

Marriage, Hair, Bridge

Bac Giang

“When will you get married?” Bich, an English teacher at my school, asked me. I laughed and said not for a very long time. On the ride home, Chung, the other English teacher, articulated my reasoning.

“You want to live freely and independently?” she said.

“Exactly,” I said.

Even though I am only 20 (or 21 in Vietnamese years), people ask me about marriage all the time. Here, people often marry around age 25, which is similar to America, but marriage is a topic I do not plan to be involved in personally for quite awhile. I can’t even commit to brushing my hair, let alone another human being.

Speaking of hair, humidity officially took its toll on mine when I neglected to brush it for almost two weeks. The nest I grew in that time required almost an hour to sort through, and when I finished, I decided to make the responsible choice and cut it all off, lest some creatures burrow in it the next week. So, on Saturday, Chung took me to U.S.A. International Academy, a Vietnamese hair salon that has never actually cut a foreigner’s hair before. This was also my first haircut not done by Patti, who has cut my hair pretty much since birth.

I instantly became a celebrity there and the whole two-hour ordeal was also a photoshoot. In the end, I obtained liberation from my mane and a new Facebook friend. Then they had to bring up marriage again.

“The boy who is cutting my hair says that because you are so beautiful, a lot of boys will cry when you get married,” Chung said.

After that, we went directly to a wedding, where, like American weddings, people got a little drunk and, unlike American weddings, really wanted to take pictures with me. One man even introduced himself by saying “I love you.” I swear, if anyone needs a confidence boost or wants to feel like Taylor Swift for a day, just go to a rural area in a developing country and be yourself. That’s all it takes.

So colorful. This was maybe their first kiss ever (???). Go wedding.

So colorful. This was maybe their first kiss ever (???). Go wedding.

The Vietnamese wedding took place over two days, both at homes. On Saturday, people ate and drank and talked. On Sunday, the festivities began at the bride’s house, where the newlyweds allegedly kissed for the first time, and then transitioned to the groom’s house, where the celebration concluded. The only cultural difference that saddened me was the complete lack of dancing (the best part of American weddings).

The very photogenic newlyweds.

The very photogenic newlyweds.

To complete my rhyme scheme, I must talk about a bridge. I have learned that here, when people invite you to their home, it is often a 24-hour ordeal. So, when Bich invited me to her home on Friday, I knew that I would be there Saturday morning, when I would also need to run. She offered to bike alongside me, which elated me because I have been alone on every single run; my spirits only got higher when I awoke Saturday morning to wet ground and a sprinkle in the air. Nothing makes me happier here than rain. I wish it rained every day. We went on to have a marvelous long run on a trail that crossed a bridge. That’s all I have to say about the bridge.

So, I end this week (almost a month in!) unmarried, with shorter hair, and on the same side of the bridge where I began. And with less than 100 pages left until I have finished all six books I brought.

Week Two in Bac Giang in Four Parts

Bac Giang

This week’s installment arrives in four important, mostly unrelated, parts.

Part I: Teaching

After two weeks in Vietnam, I finally got to start teaching. Beforehand, my occasionally-induced anxiety peaked, but I left my first three-hour class on Monday full of adrenaline, motivation, and inspiration. Schedule-wise, I teach seventh graders on Monday and Thursday, sixth graders on Tuesday and Friday, and eighth graders on Wednesday. People-wise, I teach around 80 or 90 enthusiastic, high-quality students who may or may not understand any words I say. Luckily, I have support and translation abilities from the school’s two English teachers and from my local buddy Chinh.

On Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, class begins at 7 a.m. (on Tuesday and Friday it begins at 8), which means I wake up at 5 a.m. to run (and am still the last one up in my homestay). This also means I go to bed around 8:30 p.m. every night, which would reduce past Monica to tears of laughter and disbelief.

Like the things I love most in life (running, writing, reading), teaching is at once challenging and arduous, yet rewarding and soul-fulfilling. I think I will like my job here.

Part II: Disaster in Do Moi Village

On Thursday, I returned from my run to an abandoned homestay around 6 a.m. and hurried to the bathroom. Somehow, all the fates aligned and when I accidentally tapped the water pipe that connects the toilet to the wall, disaster struck. Water sprayed everywhere; or, water surged directly at me. All attempts to reconnect the pipe failed; so, frantic, I pranced around the property looking for the magic switch that would halt all water flows. When I also failed to locate that magic switch, I texted two of my host relatives, neither of whom speak English, asking for help, and called Chinh. Nobody answered me, but I knew that my ride to school would arrive at 6:30, so I decided to ignore the situation for five minutes and shower (because priorities).

Marginally clean, I then engineered a method to slow the flow using several cloths and some rubber material that I found in the bathroom. A neighbor showed up and I gestured toward the bathroom, but once she saw the problem, she left, either uninterested or gathering backup. Finally, my ride arrived at 6:30 and when I showed her, she cackled and told me to get dressed for school. By the time I returned outside, my host father was home and my ride assured me that everything was fine, so we motorbiked off to class, I still sweaty and wondering how long until the situation would become funny rather than embarrassing.

Part III: Independence Weekend

At the precise minute that my friends and family in Eugene began the Butte to Butte—a run I have done every Independence Day for as long as I can remember—I serenaded Chinh and two of his cousins with an incredible karaoke rendition of Sweet Caroline. Okay, it could have been a different song, but Sweet Caroline seems patriotic. Karaoke is the thing to do here (there are signs for it every block), but my first attempt was the night before, again with Chinh and another cousin. Of course, I had to go back for another round. This time, we all belted My Heart Will Go On in cross-cultural unison. Titanic knows no boundaries.

Saturday in the daylight featured all-day celebration in Chinh’s hometown—I celebrated the fourth of July and everyone else celebrated my visit. We drank beer, ate giant tropical fruits, cheered to homemade alcohol that Chinh claimed was “wine,” and visited another pagoda nestled in the mountains. The next day, I visited my other local buddy, Hang, in Bac Giang City. Two hometowns in the same province, but an observation in the contrast between rural and urban Bac Giang.

In short, for this Independence Day, I did both American and Vietnamese things, but I feel lucky to have spent it here rather than there.

Part IV: Pictures

Karaoke selfie--one of the few socially acceptable selfie types.

Karaoke selfie–one of the few socially acceptable selfie types.

This kid found us so we put my sunglasses on him and took pictures. He's a rockstar.

This kid found us so we put my sunglasses on him and took pictures. He’s a rockstar.

This is what a Vietnamese meal looks like. Note the homemade alcohol to the left of the bia.

This is what a Vietnamese meal looks like. Note the homemade alcohol to the left of the bia.

The crew (minus one) at the pagoda.

The crew (minus one) at the pagoda.

These two matched perfectly (brands and all). All denim everything.

These two matched perfectly (brands and all). All denim everything.

Sometimes it's necessary to stop on the side of the road and pet some cows.

Sometimes it’s necessary to stop on the side of the road and pet some cows.

Typical Vietnam.

Typical Vietnam.

A Week in Bac Giang: Watermelon Softens All Culture Shock

Bac Giang

I thought that I had evaded culture shock, but it was just delayed. When I left my bustling and convenient city life in Hanoi for the actual countryside via a three-hour bus ride, I did not have time to process the change because I was distracted by Once a Runner the entire time. Upon arrival, I thought to myself, “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” then remembered that I’ve never been to Kansas, and then realized that I have been talking to myself in full sentences (in my head) quite frequently since no one speaks English and I need to converse.

Buffaloes are everywhere. But they're nice buffaloes, not the kind that maul people like at Yellowstone.

Buffaloes are everywhere. But they’re nice buffaloes, not the kind that maul people like at Yellowstone.

That evening, at my homestay, while everyone prepared dinner, I glanced over to see two of my host relatives crouched around something. Upon further inspection, I recognized one of the chickens from out back and watched the blood drain from its neck. Linh, my program coordinator, informed me that the chickens, doves, and ducks are all family pets so they can be eaten someday.

This is a pretty typical view in Bac Giang. Very different from Hanoi, but very excellent.

This is a pretty typical view in Bac Giang. Very different from Hanoi, but very excellent.

We all (three generations of my host family, Linh, my local buddy Chinh, and various neighbors) ate dinner that night on the living room floor, where I demonstrated my steadily improving chopstick technique and participated in the Vietnamese tradition of meeting someone: drinking all the beer in your respective glasses in “one shot,” then introducing yourselves and shaking hands. A lot of people wanted to meet me that dinner. Exhausted, I went to bed by 9 p.m., but not before a massive spider greeted me in the bathroom and several lizards scurried around the sink.

This was not the spider in my bathroom, but there were a bunch of these on a hike we took to a waterfall. It's about the size of my hand.

This was not the spider in my bathroom, but there were a bunch of these on a hike we took to a waterfall. It’s about the size of a small hand.

Since it would be a waste to come to Bac Giang (pronounced bock zong) and only be known as the foreigner (I am the only one here) I have already made a name for myself as the runner and the vegetarian. Each morning, when I traverse country roads and rice paddy trails, people stare and later ask about me. Yesterday, a neighbor visited my homestay and squeezed my arm and leg because she had watched me run every morning and wondered what my running body felt like. Linh assured me that this is totally normal. At meals, people usually provide either plain or fried tofu and push all the vegetables my way. To answer the forever question, yes, I would and do eat eggs if they come from chickens that are raised and treated well, but only if I live with the chickens, which I currently do.

The road right outside my homestay. Also where I start my runs each morning. Good old country roads.

The road right outside my homestay. Also where I start my runs each morning. Good old country roads.

I have acquired several habits this week. I nap, or “take a rest” as they call it, every day after lunch. But lunch isn’t always at my homestay, so I have napped in several beds graciously offered to me by my lunch hosts. People are truly hospitable here. I also average about a watermelon a day, and often complement that with mango or pineapple. The same people who offer me their beds for napping are often impressed with my fruit-eating abilities. I don’t think American fruit will satisfy me ever again.

Yes, it's all as good as it looks.

Yes, it’s all as good as it looks. The mangos were from a tree in their backyard.

Even though Vietnam is a predominantly atheist country, pagodas and temples abound. On Friday, we went to the local pagoda for the annual festival to drink tea and eat lunch. We arrived at 10 a.m. and while most people had come and left already, I (and Linh) was invited to dine in the area usually reserved for the most generous donors. So, we had a slightly better lunch at 10:30 served by the Buddhist monks and also received a bottle of fresh tea. Foreign perks.

Pagoda number 343287492.

Pagoda number 343287492.

I’ve adjusted quite a bit through the week, and the slow-paced, nature life really is the one for me. We went to a waterfall yesterday that reminded me of home, but I guess this strange, beautiful place is my actual home for the next two months.

Waterfall number one. We climbed a lot of stairs again.

Waterfall number one. We climbed a lot of stairs again.

Waterfall number two. I do not know the people pictured, but I like what they add to the atmosphere.

Waterfall number two. I do not know the people pictured, but I like what they add to the atmosphere.

It feels like I’ve been here for much longer than two weeks, and my actual teaching finally starts tomorrow, so I have a long journey left. Many more places to see and people to meet. Much more Vietnamese to become.

The journey to and from the waterfalls did not suck.

The journey to and from the waterfalls did not suck.

Highlight Reel One: Hanoi and Ninh Binh

Hanoi, Traveling
Them: want a picture? Me: Yeah, with the lion! Them (implicitly): Okay, weirdo. This is outside of a temple by Sword Lake.

Them: want a picture? Me: Yeah, with the lion! Them (implicitly): Okay, weirdo. This is outside of a temple by Sword Lake.

This is what breaking vegan looks like. EGG COFFEE (apparently a totally normal thing here. Also offered was egg beer, egg with rum and chocolate, and many more options).

This is what breaking vegan looks like. EGG COFFEE (apparently a totally normal thing here. Also offered was egg beer, egg with rum and chocolate, and many more options).

This picture does not do the traffic justice, but note the ratio of motorbikes to any other vehicle. Also note that Hanoi is a really massive city.

This picture does not do the traffic justice, but note the ratio of motorbikes to any other vehicle. Also note that Hanoi is a really massive city.

My local buddy, Chinh, insisted (I did not disagree) that we get bia (beer) at international crossroads because everyone has to do it. It did not disappoint.

My local buddy, Chinh, insisted (I did not disagree) that we get bia (beer) and rice paper at international crossroads because everyone has to do it. It did not disappoint.

Inside the largest pagoda in Vietnam, where there were walkways lined with these statues all the way to the top of a temple.

Inside the largest pagoda in Vietnam, where there were walkways lined with these statues all the way to the top of a temple.

A really artsy photo of one of the many giant gold statues in the pagoda.

A really artsy photo of one of the many giant gold statues in the pagoda.

I mean the views in Ninh Binh were okay, I guess.

I mean the views in Ninh Binh were okay, I guess.

Another artsy photo taken before we got into boats at Trang An.

Another artsy photo taken before we got into boats at Trang An.

Part of the group, featuring fellow SE Vietnam intern Hugo from France.

Part of the group, featuring fellow SE Vietnam intern Hugo from France.

Such landscape. So beauty. Very wow.

Such landscape. So beauty. Very wow.

Proof that I, too, was on a boat (with another fellow SE Vietnam intern from Canada, Alanna).

Proof that I, too, was on a boat (with another fellow SE Vietnam intern from Canada, Alanna).

We went through a lot of caves. Caves are cool.

We went through a lot of caves. Caves are cool.

We also climbed a lot of stairs. Stairs are also cool.

We also climbed a lot of stairs. Stairs are also cool.

Two of my fearless leaders: local buddy Chinh and host sister Dung.

Two of my fearless leaders: local buddy Chinh and host sister Dung.

There were at least a thousand boats ready to take tourists through Trang An. Also the sky looked pretty neat.

There were at least a thousand boats ready to take tourists through Trang An. Also the sky looked pretty neat.

Sweat and Motorbikes: Welcome to Hanoi

Hanoi

Less than a week in Hanoi and already I have too many pictures and stories than I could feasibly share with the world. It’s rough when every day is an adventure in a place 7,000 miles (by boat) from home. Oh well. Let me tell you about my mornings.

Before I left, I watched the weather reports for Hanoi, but I failed to understand that 80 degrees fahrenheit and 90% humidity at 6 a.m. meant that I would be running in that. On my second morning here, I stumbled out of the mosquito net that protects me at six and replaced my sweaty sleeping clothes with my not-yet-sweaty running clothes. Downstairs, my host mother, who does not speak much English, saw me holding my running shoes. “Ah!” she said, then gestured with her arms while counting in rhythm on her way to unlock the five deadbolts between me and the outside world.

Next, I was to attempt for the first time a feat that has frightened many a Westerner: crossing the street alone. Traffic in Hanoi (and most of Southeast Asia from what I can tell) is a kaleidoscope of motorbikes, bicycles, taxis, and buses all intent on moving forward at all costs. This means that unlike good old Oregon, pedestrians never have the right-of-way. Not even a little bit. Even among the vehicles, everyone and no one has the right-of-way. So, to get from one side to the other, you must start walking and trust that the vehicles will find their way around you. Every crossing is a mini adrenaline rush right outside your door. For free! Five days later, I now consider myself a professional street-crosser.

Once I made my way to the park less than a mile from my homestay, I saw that my whole exercise early idea was not only unoriginal, but mainstream. Swarms of people walked the path around the reservoir while women danced to music (with the same gestures that my host mother had used earlier) and children climbed all over the playground. I ran in circles and began my quick descent into sweat-drenched status. Several people said, “Hello!” when they saw me (this happens everywhere; it’s adorable) and I passed one man several times who said, “Wow!” and “Yes!” On my Sunday long run, one hour deep and reviewing the symptoms of heatstroke in my head, a man ran the opposite direction and said, “Never…give up.” I love Vietnam.

After recovering, I returned home, still drenched, and wondered how I was supposed to get in the house. Desperate and thirsty, I called one of my local buddies, but over the phone he could not understand my dilemma so I had to wait for my host mother to notice that I was outside. She shooed me up to the shower, where I welcomed the cold water (they have hot water too, I just wanted a cold shower) and enjoyed my daily five minutes of cleanliness before I left the shower and felt the sweat return. My poor sweat glands. I hope they survive the next ten weeks.

When I went downstairs for breakfast, I ate as much of the food they made me as I could, but I have no idea what it’s called or how to describe it. As with most of what my host family feeds me, I know only that there is a lot and they do not understand how I could feel full before everything is gone. So I power through, mostly because I know that fruit will follow and the fruit here is incredible. Plus one for semi-tropical climates.

My days also include twelve more hours of culture-infused activities, but I cannot describe them all, so I will post a highlight reel of pictures as a substitute. In short, Hanoi rules, but I am beyond excited to move to my village in the Bac Giang province tomorrow. After our excursion to Trang An yesterday, I can confirm that I belong in the countryside. Until later, tạm biệt!