Cao Bang is Jurassic Park. It's like the geography of Thailand beaches, but instead of rock formations bursting off of flat ocean water, they're bursting off of flat, bright green grassland and rice fields. Our homestay was located in a little village called Khuoi Ky (pronounced Koh-eye Kee). The home was made of stone, two hundred years old, with wooden floors inside. It had a lovely outdoor stone patio and was surrounded by 5 or 6 other stone homes in the village. A small pathway made of cobbled stone ran between the homes and led to a small bridge which crossed over a river. On the other side of the river there was a dirt road which led to the main road a few hundred meters down.
Just a couple of kilometers from the village, there is an epic natural wonder called Ban Gioc Waterfall. The waterfall itself is epic, with six or seven giant falls of crisp, cascading white water. One side of the fall is Vietnam and the other side is China. (So like, we probably didn't need to bike to China that day in Bac Ha.)
View from one of the high points in Cao Bang.
Ban Gioc Waterfall 2km from our village in Cao Bang. We are standing on the Vietnam side. Other side is China. Pics really don't do it justice.
Me at Ban Gioc.
Our time in Cao Bang was spent mostly riding around on the motorbike. We'd hop on and just drive until we found a road that looked intriguing, turn down that road and kinda get lost – but not really, because there aren't that many roads, so we always kinda knew where we were even when we were a couple of hours from our village. We spent a ton of time with locals around Cao Bang, whom we'd encounter whenever we needed to stop for something (snacks, petrol, cover from the rain). One thing worth noting about Vietnam (in fact, many places in Asia), particularly in the areas outside the big cities, is that many local business also serve as homes. Meaning, many people eat and sleep in the back of the shop they own. For example, a roadside shop that sells snacks and toiletries will typically do business in the front where the goods face the road, but have a bedroom/kitchen/etc in the back where the owning family lives. This is true of gas stations, restaurants and almost every other kind of business I can think of. So, if we were driving around and wanted to stop for a snack, we'd pull up to a roadside shop and the person helping us would be a member of the family that lived in and owned that shop. There might be kids hanging out or watching a TV in the shop or in a room just behind the goods for sale. There might be a mother cooking dinner over a stove just next to the rack where the chips are merchandised. We would usually make conversation with whomever we encountered.
One morning I took the bike out alone to grab some coffee. I wanted this cold canned coffee called Birdy and I knew a shop on the main road was selling it.
The bike was a semi-automatic, so there was no clutch but there were four gears. I had practiced driving it the day before, and I did drive a stickshift in high school and college (although I'm sure anyone that has been in the car with me is laughing over my SHIT DRIVING). So I take the bike and I needed to pick up shampoo so I first stop at a little shop in our village. The woman/mother in the shop was helping someone, so I sat on a plastic stool and waited. As I waited I noticed a twin-sized bed in the back of the shop, enclosed by a mosquito net, with four kids playing inside. When they see me, they jump out, run over to me and all shout "hello!!! hello!!!"
(This is another joyous thing about the villages of Vietnam. When you get outside the cities, every local wants to say hello to you. When you ride a bike through the village you cannot pass another human without shouting "hello!!!" to each other. This is sometimes followed by "What Is Your Name?" or "How Long In Vietnam?")
So these kids are standing in front of me, smiling and staring. They range in age from maybe four to eight years old. After a few minutes of this silent smiling and staring, I thought it would be cute to throw my hands up and make some kind of ROAR noise to break the silence and get a rise out of them. So I did that and three of them started squealing with delight and laughing... but one of them was so terrified by me that she started screaming at the top of her lungs and then burst into tears for the next five minutes. I tried to comfort her, like, "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" while extending my hand out to her to show that I came in peace, but she cowered away from me, genuinely afraid. Guys I felt like an actual monster. I apologized to her mother, who was laughing. I paid for my shampoo while continuing to apologize profusely and left while waving goodbye to the kids, three of them waving back with huge smiles and the other one still looking at me stonefaced.
Then I hit the main road to grab the coffee. While parking the bike, I'm not sure exactly what happened but I got in a little accident... with myself. I think what happened was, I was trying to put the kickstand down, but I still had my right hand on the gas. (The right handlebar of the bike is the gas – you pull it toward you to accelerate). I meant to brake, but I accidentally revved on the gas, so the bike jolted forward and the kickstand dug into my calf. And then I just kinda lost it and the bike was falling over on me and I accidentally revved again and then me and the bike both just fell down. I think the kickstand dug into my leg pretty hard. I did not tell Alex because I knew he would make fun of me and not let me drive in future. Two weeks later in Portugal I still have this bruise.
More from Cao Bang…
1. One afternoon we go for a ride on the bike around 3 or 4pm. Our family says dinner is at 7:30pm, so we’re like okay cool we’ll just ride around until then. After a couple of hours, as always, it started to pour so we pull over to seek cover at this little shop with an overhang. Inside we can see the family doing their thing. They had asked us if we needed anything but we said we were good so they continued doing their thing while we hung outside. We’re sitting under the overhang talking for like a half hour while it pours, and then the father comes over to us and he’s waving us in, like, “okay, dinnertime!” Well, we had not expected dinner but we weren’t going to be rude when we’ve just been sitting in their front area for a half hour. So we go inside and have dinner with this family. They must have been pretty well off, because about half way through dinner I realized that the mother was not the cook. Another woman was cooking in the kitchen and bringing everything over to us. The family did not speak a word of English, so there wasn’t much talking during dinner. The food was delicious. We graciously thanked them and started to head out because we had to be home by 7:30 for dinner number two and still had an hour to ride. On the ride home we were imagining how the dad of this family would have described this scenario to his friends. Like, “Yeah so we were making dinner when these two white tourists roll up to our house and just like, sit in the front in our shop. They didn’t leave for 30 minutes and it was pouring rain and we felt bad so we just told them to come inside and eat with us. We couldn’t understand a fucking word they were saying but they seemed harmless. Their bike was a piece of shit.”
Views from riding around Cao Bang.
Cao Bang roads.
View from riding around Cao Bang.
View from riding around Cao Bang.
2. Dieu, the mother of the family we stayed with, was frustrated one day because she couldn’t get her listing up on Agoda.com. (We had found her on Facebook). She asked me if I could help her, so we sat together and started to figure it out. Dieu doesn't speak English, and for some reason Google Chrome was not translating the site to English, so we had a few hiccups. Dieu couldn’t remember her Agoda password (she had previously started to create a listing). We had a temp password sent to her via email and then she couldn’t remember her gmail password either. All of this was happening in Vietnamese on Google Chrome so we were using Google Translate every 20 seconds. It was a PROCESS. At one point we couldn't log in to the necessary accounts and it felt like we weren’t going to make it work. Dieu started crying. I felt so helpless. Can you imagine how important this is for her family's livelihood? I rubbed her back and typed into Google Translate "Dieu, we are going to make this work no matter what." We spent the next hour figuring it out and there is finally a complete, working Agoda listing.
Yen Nhi homestay in Khuoi Ky village outside Cao Bang.
Khuoi Ky village outside Cao Bang, where Yen Nhi homestay is.
3. We explored a cave near our village. Nothing crazy happened but, caves are weird.
4. A couple stayed at our homestay with their two kids who were 13 and 16. I could not believe they were traveling to freakin Khuoi Ky village with their teenage kids staying in a homestay. So badass. Fam goals. One of the kids got leeches in the river one day.
5. I used conditioner for the first time in 3 weeks and it was AMAZING.
6. We used Google Translate A LOT. Even with this incredible tool, we can never be sure we’re communicating to the degree of exactness we intend. Here’s some of the best of Google Translate:
7. We found a snack called Custas. The first one or two little cakes we tried were not good. And then suddenly they became really fucking good. We bought these everywhere we could find them from then on.
8. Alex said I make him feel like he never has to grow up. (He is a few years younger than me). Some people might interpret this as unflattering. It is one of the best compliments I have ever received.
9. I wanted to pet the cows but they are just not down. In India, you can hang with the cows. In Vietnam, you cannot really hang with the cows.
After five or six days in Cao Bang, Alex and I headed back to Hanoi. Alex’s visa was up and he was going to Australia to find a job in Perth. It was around 7am when our bus arrived in the city. In the taxi en route from the bus station in Hanoi to our hostel, I noticed for the first time the collective use of Hanoi’s public spaces. There were about 50 people doing a yoga class in some park. There were men playing early morning tennis on the public tennis courts. I loved witnessing this, because it demonstrated the context of the city that these locals share with each other. A bunch of strangers sharing the best of what their city had to offer. For the first time in Hanoi I experienced the shared identity of being a Hanoian.
On Alex’s last day in Hanoi, we went back to the bar where the 70’s dance party had happened for some daytime hang time. Then we walked around the lake and played games with the locals – some kind of cricket/badminton game, some kind of hackeysack game. We ate banh my 3 times throughout the day. And sugared dough balls from the streets. And then the next morning, it was time for Alex to go to the airport. Eric, our friend from Zim’s House (hostel) who had come for the good shower and stayed for two months and was now teaching English, offered to drive Alex to the airport on his motorbike. I thought to myself that this was the best way to leave the country: to be driven by a friend. Alex and I had huge hugs but did not make too big a deal of leaving each other. It was kinda like, see you soon some time some place in the world. I could have sobbed (cause I’m a mush), but I didn’t. I’ve said this before about backpacking: it’s a gift to be able to meet new people every single day, but damn does it suck to always be saying goodbye.
Locals playing games in the park. This one was some take on Badminton, I think.
Me and Alex on some bus ride.
Alex leaving Vietnam was definitely bittersweet. We had traveled together for 3 weeks which in backpacker time might as well have been 3 years, so I missed him immediately. I was like hmm, what will I do in Hanoi today without my adventure buddy!? At the same time, I felt a sense of optimism and possibility about rolling solo again. A healthy dose of fear of the unknown. I had met a couple of new people at the hostel and explored with them for a bit. I made plans to head to Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay early the next morning and woke up feeling like “let’s go get the world, baby.”
My accommodation on Cat Ba Island was called Woodstock Beach Camp. It was exactly that. Dorms and bungalows on the beach. Volleyball. Slackline. Hammocks in the sand. Hammocks on the main porch. Picnic tables for communal dining. Smoothies. Fire ceremonies at night. Some ring-toss kinda game. Music playing over the speakers all day. A little bar that turned on around 8pm and went until around 1am. A pool table. A shipwreck parked in the water (hi Captain Brian). And just about anything and everything else you can imagine would be going down at a place called Woodstock. It. was. heaven. Even better than the perfect design and vibe of this compound was that I felt like I had found my people. Many dreads. Few shirts. And most people were around my age – it was a slightly more mature crowd. I knew pretty quickly that I would get stuck here if I had more time, but I only had 3 days before I had to get back to Hanoi to fly to meet my family in Portugal.
View from Woodstock.
Night view of the beach at Woodstock, taken from the beach hammock.
My dorm at Woodstock. Top right bunk.
Adventures on Cat Ba Island:
1. One morning I met Mike from the UK (what up Shropshire!) and Joe from Atlanta. They were going to ride to a "secret beach" (obviously people know about the beach) and invited me to tag along. The directions to this place were absurd. Literally: Drive on XYZ road for about 10km. Make a right when you see XYZ landmark. You will pull up to a home with a big scary guard dog on a chain leash. Park there. The dog will bark at you – keep it moving and follow the path down the hill. At the bottom of the hill, pass the crocodile farm on your right. (TF is a crocodile farm? It is a fenced-in pond housing 30-50 crocodiles.) After the crocodiles, follow the path past the local fishermen on the left. Then continue for 1km on the path. The directions did not mention that parts of the path were swampland. We took off our shoes and waded through swamp. After another kilometer or so, the swampy grassland opened up into a white sand beach. It was between one and two thousand degrees outside. The only other people on the beach were three young Vietnamese boys, playing in a boat. They were about ten years old. We were of course greeted with the usual “hello!!!” We went swimming in the water (which was not the ocean, but rather some cove of Halong Bay) and I felt safe knowing these kids were around. Cause ya know, the kids always know what’s kosher and not kosher, and they’re not afraid to tell you. They’re on your side. You start swimming in a part of the water where the current gets really strong? Kids are gonna scream after you, like “not safe! not safe!." Adults on the other hand… adults are gonna be watching from the sidelines laughing to each other, like, “look at the tourists swimming out there!… should we wait here and see what happens?”
It was a great day. Later that night we were all hanging and Mike and I were like, wait, did we meet THIS MORNING?????? WHAT!!!
The beginning of the path to secret beach.
Croc farm en route to secret beach.
2. A bunch of us went for a ride to the Green Ladder, which has been affixed to the side of some small peak and when you climb to the top you can see a beautiful view of some of the islands in Halong Bay. It takes about 25 minutes to climb to the top. I wore hiking boots which was way too aggressive for this climb. On the ride to the ladder, we encountered a monster flood in the road. Knee-high water. Buses and cars were driving right through it. Locals were driving their bikes through. We took our shoes off, got off our bikes and walked them through.
Brian, Daniel and me in the middle of the flood, aka forging the river on the Oregon Trail. (Hi guys!!!)
Climbed about 10 flights of these.
View from the top of the Green Ladder.
3. One night after showering over in my dorm (I was in the beachfront dorm and the main reception area / dining area was just across the road) I walked across the road to meet everyone for dinner and whatever evening adventure would be happening that night. I saw some familiar and some unfamiliar faces sitting at one of the picnic-style tables. There was one spot open on the bench and I sat down. I did not know the girl sitting next to me so I said, “Hi!” and she threw her arms around me like we had known each other for years. She was like, “Look at you! Where did you come from! You're so cute!” It was literally like Cher taking Tai under wing in Clueless. She introduces herself. Her name is Ags, short for Agata. She is Polish. We proceed to identify a number of coincidences: 1) We have very similar eyes. 2) We have very similar long, wavy hair. 3) We are exactly the same height. 4) There is a fancy grocery store around the corner from my apartment in the city called Agata & Valentina. This is one of my favorite places in New York. 5) We are both Polish. I’m not sure how Polish I am, but at least 25%. 6) We both had incidents where we accidentally ripped out a few of our eyelashes while using an eyelash curler. Mine occurred a few years ago. Ags’ occurred a few nights ago. I hated to break it to her but mine never really grew back. 7) We had both been traveling in Nepal in 2015. 8) We had both been eating Vietnamese food for weeks and really, really wanted pizza that night. We rounded everyone up to ride into town for some pizza. After crushing my own pizza I realize I have not eaten cheese in a month. For the next couple of days, people would come up to one of us and say “there’s someone else here who looks just like you.” On the day I had to leave Cat Ba, Ags happened to be hanging in the main area and we said our goodbyes. We jump on Ags’ phone and send me a friend request on Facebook. We exchange big hugs. Later, on the bus, I go on Facebook and accept Ags’ request. Who are our mutual friends? All of the staff from Secret Garden Guest House in Kathmandu, Nepal. I had lived there for a month!! So had Ags.
4. The ride into town to get pizza is about 25 minutes. We had rounded everyone up but some of our friends had been drinking (I'm looking at you, Joe) so we doubled up on the bikes. Joe, a United States Marine, who in any other circumstance would have driven himself, rode on the back of my bike. I'm a really slow driver, so we started to trail behind everyone. And then we ran out of gas, totally my bad. So the bike stops, it's pitch black and we're like hmmm what to do. We both have dead phones so we have no way of telling the others, who are already way ahead. We wave down a local who says gas is up the road about 600 meters. I jump onto the local's bike and I'm like, Joe, I'll be back for you – wait right here with the bike! Joe insists on pushing the bike 600m to the petrol station and I'm like dude, I'll go get it and come back. We agree he will start to push the bike, I'll go with the local to pick up a bottle of petrol and eventually we should find each other. We both have dead phones. So I'm off with the local and unfortunately the petrol station is closed. So now we are biking almost ten minutes and I'm like, shit, this is not good. Joe is probably wondering where I am. I finally get petrol and ride back to Joe. On the way I see the crew pulled over on the side of the road and I'm like – from the back of the local's bike – "hey guys!! We ran out of gas! I'm bringing petrol back to Joe! We'll meet you at the restaurant!" I get back to Joe, and he has pushed the bike 600 meters up a hill to the original petrol station that didn't have gas. Local drives off. I tell him to please apologize to his girlfriend who has been waiting for him while he helps us. We fill up the bike, but it turns out something else is wrong. Bike won't start. Now we're really f'd. But then by some miracle, the dude who runs the motorbike rental at Woodstock drives past us. He's like, guys, you can have my bike and I'll wait here with yours. We take his bike and ride to pizza.
4. In the main town, about 25 minutes by motorbike from Woodstock, there are four floating restaurants. I had never seen anything like this before. Each restaurant had a big neon sign with its name and phone number. You call the phone number and water taxi comes to get you.
Floating restaurants in Cat Ba Town.
Me in Cat Ba town.
5. I was reminded of how much I appreciate using cash while traveling. Yeah, credit cards and Venmo are cool, but have you ever just paid your part using cash and been done with it? Whenever splitting the bill we’d each just throw in what we owed. You don’t pay for anything you didn’t order and there are rarely issues with having proper change or figuring out who owes what. Cash is king. Of course, when you travel with someone for long enough you do start to do the whole “oh can you just spot me this $VND10,000 because I only have big bills” and then you start having to keep a tally of the shit you owe each other. Alex, you actually owe me a balance of $VND65,000...............
6. On the day I was leaving Cat Ba, I was waiting for the bus at Woodstock. When the bus arrived I went to find my flip flops. No shoes allowed inside so everyone's shoes are piled up at the entrance. I do not see my flip flops anywhere but I do see a pair that are almost identical to mine. Gold Havaianas, exactly my size, but they have a rhinestone on them and mine do not. When I still cannot find mine, I realize someone has mistaken my shoes for theirs. The bus arrives and I have no choice but to take the available rhinestone pair. These are now my shoes.
After a few days I had to leave Cat Ba to meet my family in Portugal for a family vacation. The bus back to Hanoi had a big TV with Vietnamese techno music videos playing the whole time. This is pretty customary on buses and in public spaces and I obviously love the techno.
On the way to the airport, sitting in the back of the taxi, I jumped on my phone. When I finally looked up from my phone I realized I'd been scrolling through Facebook for like 30 minutes. Couldn’t remember the last time I’d done that. I did, however, download a Chrome extension that allows me to watch The Bachelorette on abc.go.com from anywhere in the world and I am not ashamed to admit I’ve been hawking that shit.
So, one month in Vietnam over. (Six weeks of travel, including Australia beforehand). I was excited to see my family and also really, really sad to leave Vietnam. I hadn’t even made it south of Hanoi! I had unfinished business in this country.
Everything I just wrote was written from the back seat of the car we rented to drive between cities in Portugal. The reunion with the fam has been great so far. And Portugal as a country is awesome. It has been nice to have two towels for showering and I have enjoyed the relief from the heat that only sweet, sweet air conditioning can provide. I have not particularly enjoyed the abundance of [full length] mirrors or the absence of "hello!!!"' exchanges with every passing local.
I am also a little overwhelmed by the impending decision ahead of me: where to, after Portugal? I will continue to be abroad for as long as possible. As it stands, that’s looking like another few months. I have a healthy travel budget, but ideally it will be offset by earning local money and I want the experience of being employed abroad. The scenario I’d like to create is one where I’m posted up in one place – a place that is inexpensive – where I'm working a few days a week (at a hostel or teaching English, for example) and spending the remaining time figuring out how to get my own business off the ground. What that business is I do not yet know and that’s why I am taking this time to sort it out. It is a tremendous privilege to have the opportunity to earn NYC money – a privilege that has afforded me the opportunity to travel this way. But, as I figure out how to make money independently, it does not make sense financially for me to try to do this from New York. I cannot live day to day in NY without predictable income, and if I sign up for a full time salaried job in NY then I am abandoning the ambition of starting my own business. So, next stop is not about being on vacation and fucking around all day. It’s about settling down, earning local money to cover the short term and creating something sustainable for the long term.
As of now there are 3 attractive possibilities for post-Portugal:
1) back to Cat Ba Island in Vietnam
2) back to India. I would probably go to Srinagar which is the capital of Kashmir. I have friends who live in Srinagar (hi Bilal!!) but I met them in another part of India and I never made it to Srinagar last time.
3) Koh Pha Ngan in Thailand. I have been to Thailand, but not to this island. One particular accommodation has been recommended to me as a place that would be conducive to my goals for this next chapter.
I am kinda leaning toward Cat Ba.
Before I go anywhere, I will be making a pit stop in Lyon, France for a little friendBNB visit to Chantal and Nico. Chantal and I worked together at co: and she and her husband Nico moved to France earlier this year. While I’m in Europe, gotta go check out this new French life she’s living!
Finally, before I end this post I want to say this: some of you have reached out to me and I cannot thank you enough for the encouragement regarding this blog (ughh that word) aka story website (lolz). It means more to me than you know. It takes a long ass time – like, many many hours – to write these posts and sort/upload the photos. Hearing that you enjoy reading these posts is huge and it's why I keep doing this. I mean, I'm literally posting my diary on the internet.
I'm curious to hear if there is anything you'd like more of or less of? Or if you have questions that I could be answering in these posts? Thank you. I sincerely love and appreciate all of you.
Okay, heading out to explore Porto.
Big love from Portugal,