As a follow-up to my last post, I made this video to show my view from the back of three motorbikes in Cuc Phuong and Hanoi. Featuring ODESZA for music, the most adorable monkeys, and an abrupt ending.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!