Xe Om

Hanoi, Traveling

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.

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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.

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.

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.