home alone

home alone

Heeey what up fam!

I’m writing from….. the flight to Portugal. Meeting my family for vacation.

Eeeek, a month in Vietnam really blew by. Can't believe it's already over. I wanted to write throughout, but I kept feeling like writing was taking me away from being entirely in the moment. So now that I'm stuck on a plane, I’m gonna cover a month's worth of shit right here. I feel like I’m writing a final paper the night before it’s due... which is how I write all literal and metaphorical final papers so this is perfect.

Well lots happened in Vietnam. My stop-by-stop route looked like this:

Hanoi Round 1—> Sapa (city center) —> Hau Thao (village 30 km from Sapa) —> Bac Ha —> Lao Cai —> quick 5-hour roundtrip motorbike from Sapa (city center) back to Lao Cai to recover a forgotten item —> Hanoi Round 2 —> Khoui Ky (village 2 hours north of Cao Bang) —> Cao Bang (city center) —> Hanoi Round 3 —> Cat Ba Island (in Halong Bay) —> Hanoi Round 4 —> Hanoi to DXB to LISBON.

Google wouldn't let me add more stops but the last leg was Cat Ba Island, one of the islands in Halong Bay off of Hai Phong on the east coast.

After the previously recounted hiccup with China Airlines, I flew directly from Sydney to Hanoi. I could feel the chaos in Hanoi upon landing. It’s a pretty massive city with many southeast-Asian tendencies: motorbikes, cars, trucks and pedestrians compete for the right of way on every street and at every intersection. The symphony of car/bus/motorbike beeps is the soundtrack to the chaos. As I was sitting in the back of the taxi en route to my hostel, I noticed there was a couple on a motorbike riding alongside us and they were clearly backpackers so my first thought was, “ah fuck, I hope it’s not the cool thing to ride motorbikes in Hanoi because this shit looks crazy and I don’t need that pressure.” (Turned out most travelers do not ride bikes in the city but definitely ride them outside the city). Once I got into the city, the chaos heightened. From the back of my taxi I watched pedestrian tourists dodging all sorts of moving vehicles. It was clear which tourists had been in Hanoi a few days and which ones were Day One In Asia. I recalled a time in Bangkok when it took me and Jenny Kenny a solid 5 minutes to cross the street. And another time in Nepal when my New Yorker came out and I tried to cross a four way intersection and got stuck in the middle without a median (top five scariest moments of my life). This chaos was not new to me but it was a light, loving slap in the face after almost three years. It actually kinda gave me butterflies. I got over it pretty quick and employed an important principle I learned when I first started riding a bike in NYC: be predictable.

In Hanoi, I stayed at a hostel in Old Quarter. Not trying to be a hater at all but I gotta be real, this hostel was #BasicAF. It was super nice in terms of amenities (showers, towels, beds) but most people seemed entirely too.... clean? Just... unweathered. (Although I probably shouldn’t have been one to talk seeing as I had just rocked up from Sydney of all places). People seemed to be on strict touring schedules. And they wanted to do the all inclusive Halong Bay two-night party cruise. And eat pizza at tourist joints on the same street as the hostel. And hang out in groups of 10. I wasn’t mad at it (hey, everyone’s gotta start their journey somewhere) but I realized that my favorite kinds of accommodations are the ones where some people get stuck there for a little while. I just love when it’s like, oops!, that guy came for the good shower but accidentally stayed three weeks. I switched hostels the next time I returned to Hanoi. With that said, I did meet a few soul buddies at this first spot.

I spent 4-5 days in Hanoi before heading out to the mountains. The first couple of days were repetitive. I felt like every street looked the same and the same elephant-pants-clad tourists were meandering in the streets everywhere I went. The city is expansive, with tourists commandeering the Old Quarter and local city dwellers sprawling far beyond that, so I pushed myself to get out there and that’s when I started to gain a new respect for Hanoi as a city. I started to appreciate that the hustle begins early and ends never. That all things are possible. There are hundreds of places to get coffee, drink beer and eat noodles. You’ve got laundry service, spas for manicures/pedicures, any kind of mechanical or electrical part you might need replaced. Like a true city, there is really nothing you can’t do in Hanoi. 

Highlights and happenings from Hanoi Round 1:

1. I confirmed the hypothesis that coffee will be essential to my happiness and detrimental to my budget. It is my vice. My drink here is cà phê đá (traditional Vietnamese filter coffee) with condensed milk. OMFG the condensed milk is so sweet and so good.

2. Now I’m not skin and bones these days like I was post-India, but I’m relatively fit, and I could not fit in to one single fucking thing in Hanoi. Every time I went into a shop I’d be like “Big size? Big size?” and the shopkeeper would be like, “Yes! Yes! This one XXL!” And then I’d try it on and be sweating monster bullets trying to get in/out of it and then once I was done dripping sweat and had my own clothes back on I’d have to shamefully hand the XXL back to the shopkeeper like “yeah, too small." 

3. One of the recreational activities of choice in Hanoi is the nitrous oxide balloon. I have no idea how this is okay, but they’re everywhere. People just love to huff that shit. In every club there’s a "buy two beers and get a free balloon” special. People are actually passing out at times because they’re huffing nitrous oxide all night. I obviously tried one, because, When In Rome. Immediately remembered why I haven’t done that shiz since I’m sixteen.

4. I took a phone interview from the rooftop of my hostel at 8pm in Hanoi. Why I thought this was a good idea is beyond me. When I scheduled the call I thought to myself, I’ll find a quiet room in my hostel or remote corner of the city so I have a quiet space. Like, huh?!?! I should've known that neither of those scenarios would be possible, LOLZ. So I go to the roof of my hostel where there is shitty WiFi which is not ideal as I’ve suggested we do the call via WhatsApp. While I was on the phone a girl had come upstairs and heard the end of the interview. She was like, “that sounded official, hey?” and I was like “yeahhhh I’m not gonna take phone interviews from rooftop hostels anymore” and we started laughing and she turned out to be the funniest fucking person I have met in a long time. Her name is Jessie. HI JESSIE!!! Jessie is Irish. She is an artist. She drinks like beer is an endangered species. One night Jessie and I were out at a bar and met another girl, Patrise, who turns out to be from Jessie’s hometown, Cork. Cork is pretty small as far as hometowns go, so Jessie and Patrise had a love fest over their shared Corkiness. Patrise turned out to be EVEN FUNNIER than Jessie (sorry Jessie, you know it’s true though) and we laughed so hard we cried for the next three days straight. One of those days was spent at a Bia Hoi. Bia Hoi is a draught beer that is brewed daily in Vietnam and since no preservatives are used to keep it fresh, it must be drunk that same day it’s brewed. For that reason, one glass is about a quarter of the price of bottled beer. Locals sit on plastic or wooden step stools on the sidewalk and refill from the keg whenever needed.

Patrise (left) and Jessie (right) at a Bia Hoi in Hanoi

Bia Hoi!

So you kinda just sit there all day and watch Hanoi go by. I’m not the biggest beer drinker but I really do love a good beer drunk every now and then. Jessie and Patrise on the other hand, I swear these two broads had 20 glasses of beer each. At one point it started to pour and since the Bia Hoi is essentially on the sidewalk it was impossible to stay dry. We didn’t want to care about being soaking wet so we passed the time drinking more beer and exchanging puke stories from past travels. When we ran out of puke stories it was still pouring so we surrendered our footwear and walked home barefoot in the street. These two taught me the Irish slang “sound.” As in, “yeah I know her, she’s pure sound.” Means, like, “solid.” I love this word. Can’t wait until I can use it and not sound like a huge tool.

5. One day while getting a manicure I met another Irish girl and her boyfriend. We started talking and Donald Trump came up. We ended up talking for almost two hours about the state of the US. They had many questions about how and why he got elected and what it’s like now that he’s in office. I did my best to share my POV and also share whatever Trump-supporter perspective I’ve been able to piece together over the past couple of years. It got me thinking that I’ve only heard the Trump Supporter’s POV as it pertains to America One Way vs. America Another Way. So now I’m wondering, how would Trump supporters explain their support to the rest of the world? How do they see Trump’s presidency as impacting the rest of the world?  Why are they supportive of said impact? These are not rhetorical questions. If you voted for and continue to support Trump, I am keen to understand how you would break it down for foreigners! 

6. I tried a local dessert-type food called nuoc sau. It’s like iced tea, but with sticky rice and other fun stuff inside. A 17-year-old girl who was also ordering started explaining everything to me. Her English was on point. She told me she’s been learning in school but also learning by watching YouTube videos in English. She loves Zombies.

7. Tried egg coffee. I’m actually not sure what exactly this is or how it’s made but it tastes like a latte. Loved it. 

8. One evening I just needed a few minutes of respite from the insanity of Hanoi. I discovered there was a TV Room in the hostel so I went to go hang in there. A few people were hanging out with the lights off, watching Life narrated by David Attenborough. No matter where in the world you’re from, everyone can relate to that moment on the steep cliffside when the baby deer escapes the predatory fox! We all gasped in unison. 

9. I watched the World Cup in Vietnamese. For the second to last game I was still in Hanoi. Every single place – corner shops, hotels, coffee shops, bars, even clothing shops – had a TV showing the game, narrated in Vietnamese. I watched from a cafe on the corner that is normally not open past 6pm but they got a huge projector screen, stayed open late and served canned beer. It was packed with Vietnamese people of all ages. Most people were rooting for Belgium.

10. At my hostel I met a guy named Mathew who is Australian, traveled to Vietnam a few months ago and decided to stay. He’s now working at the hostel (see, I was trying to find the Mathews). We talked about many things and it just felt like we were so spiritually aligned. We even talked about one of my favorite books of all time, The Alchemist. Turns out to also be one of Mathew’s favorite books. We couldn’t believe all the things we had in common. But wanna know what the icing on the cake was? After all this talk, I find out Dude has a GOOGLE PIXEL!!! #teampixel #ad #JK

11. I did not drive or ride on a motorbike in Hanoi.

12. Just like in NYC, everyone everywhere was on Facebook or Instagram while working. All the shopkeepers, waiters, everyone! You go into any place and the person working there gives you the look of like, hold on lemme just read this last post, okay yes hi how can I help you. It’s a super interesting phenomenon because it exemplifies the distance between the physical infrastructure of Vietnam and the digital infrastructure of Vietnam. In many places in Vietnam the physical infrastructure would be considered underdeveloped by western standards. The construction of the buildings and homes, the hygiene in some areas, the physical ways in which things get done like shlepping insanely heavy shit on a bicycle from one place to another. But the digital infrastructure… now we’re cooking with gas. Every single millimeter of the country has WiFi, and it’s fast. Including every bus. GRAB offers on-demand cars, taxis and motorbikes, and in fact just bought Uber’s southeast-Asia operation a few months ago. FOODY combines Yelp and Seamless to offer location-based pickup and delivery food-ordering (17-year-old gave me this tip). From a digital standpoint there’s really nothing you can’t do in Vietnam. Same foundation, same apps and tools and systems built on top of it. It will be absolutely amazing to see the role digital infrastructure plays in the development of these lesser-developed countries over time. 

From Hanoi, I headed to Sapa. Sapa is a region in the northwest mountains of Vietnam. The bus ride to Sapa was like, hell yes, this is what I came for. Lush green mountains in bounds. I always knew when I decided on Vietnam that I would need to get to the mountains – where I tend to feel most whole. My plan was to get off the bus in Sapa Town, the main hub of the region, and then find a homestay in a nearby village. I was approached by a few local women (the mothers of the homestay households) and found one I liked. Her name was Mama Sa. I agreed to go to her village, Hau Thao, 40km from Sapa Town. She had to leave me in town to coordinate something with her husband and told me to hang at a cafe for a couple hours til she was ready to go to the village. We exchanged Facebook info so we could communicate. Turns out Mama Sa cannot read or write English but she can speak it. So I was actually messaging with her 20-year-old son back in the village, who was then calling Mama Sa’s phone to relay all of the messages. When it was time to go, Mama Sa escorted me to a motorbike that a 70-something-year-old man was driving. He would be my chauffeur and Mama Sa would go with her husband on another bike. It was around 6pm at this point, starting to get dark, and starting to rain. This would be my first moto ride in Vietnam and my first time on a motorbike since India. I was a little nervous so when I jumped on the back of the bike I put both my hands on the 70-something-year-old driver’s shoulders. After about 5 minutes of driving the winding roads of Sapa in the dark in the rain, the driver took my hands and re-placed them onto his pecs. So I'm just reaching around from behind grabbing this guy's pecs. It was kind of hilarious. He wasn’t being creepy at all – guys he’s 70. And I felt safer. About 40 minutes later I am drenched and we are rocking up to Mama Sa’s homestay. Mama Sa is leading me up the path to the house when she points to a fist-sized multi-legged crawling thing on the ground and says, “look!” Because it’s night time and I can’t see, I think it’s the largest and fastest spider I’ve ever seen and start to have a panic attack. I’m like “Mama Sa is that a spider??? Mama Sa did that come from the mountain??? Or did it come from the river???” I’m thinking, okay, if there are spiders like this out here then maybe these mountains actually aren’t for me. Ya’ll know I can get rugged AF but I have an uncontrollable reaction to spiders of a certain size and texture. Sooo, back to Sapa Town? Can someone drive me there or is that unlikely since it’s dark and still pouring? MAMA SA CAN YOU PLEASE CONFIRM IF THAT WAS A SPIDER. And then somehow, with me on the verge of tears because I’m an arachnophobic wimp ass biatch, we established that it was a crab.

Mama Sa’s homestay is like this: imagine a camp bunk. One side of the camp bunk is where Mama Sa and her family live. It’s Mama Sa, her husband, her 20-year-old son Su, Su’s 15-year-old-wife Pang, a 7-year-old son named Ba (it might have been Bao) and a 4-year-old son named Chong. Walking into Mama Sa's side of the home sort of feels like walking into a garage because it's mostly concrete. On this side of the house there is a small room for eating (where the family eats their meals when they’re not entertaining guests), an area room for cooking and storing food, an area where a laptop is set up so the kids can watch stuff, and a sleeping area. There is no second floor but there is a sort of lofted storage area. There is random stuff in every corner – sets of tools for tending to the land, wires, ropes, cold-weather clothing, a cabinet (unrefrigerated) where leftover food is stored. No refrigerator or freezer. It's an ethnic village on a Vietnamese mountainside. The first time I saw the cabinet for the food, a flash of sickness came over me. It didn’t seem hygienic and it almost felt like I wasn’t supposed to see it, either. But, the food was so good every night that I never thought about the cabinet again until right now. Also, now that I AM thinking about the cabinet, I don't think it's so bad at all. Like, do leafy sauteed greens really go bad if they sit at room temp for 12 hours? I think we're fine.

Outside, a large porch with hammocks and chairs and a table spans the entire front of the home. 

The other side of the bunk is mostly made of wood, and that’s where guests stay. This side of the home has two stories – you can see in the pic below that it's a little taller (the right side). Downstairs there is an area for eating, where dinner is served each night (Mama Sa and her family eat with us every night). Upstairs there are tiny rooms – like, 9x9 each. Each room has a wooden bed frame with what is basically a yoga mat laid over it. It is rock hard. Zero cush. Zero fluff. Zero snuggle. ZERO! There is a big, warm blanket... but with the rock hard bed it's not very snuggly. And there is a mosquito net.

Mama Sa Homestay – the best!!! Mama Sa's family stays on the right side, guests stay on the left side. Mama Sa's family built this home with their own hands 25 years ago.

One of the views from Mama Sa's.

Hangin on Mama Sa's porch. The view looks fake!

I didn’t count but I think Mama Sa can host 10 or 12 people in her home. The most crowded night we had was 8 people, and one night it was just two of us, me and Alex.

I met Alex on the first night I got to Mama Sa. He had been traveling since January and had been staying there two weeks already. He was starting to run out of money and had worked out a deal with Mama Sa to teach English to the kids every day if he could sleep for free. Mama Sa told the whole village that Alex was teaching English, so every day there would be like 8 kids showing up for the lesson. The kids ranged from 4 years old to 12 years old. Alex was an awesome teacher and the kids LOVED him. Every time someone got something right, Alex would give them a high five and say “veeery good.” Alex speaks English really well, but because he is German and still kinda has an accent, it sounded more like “vaaary good.” I found this vaaary funny for some reason. Anyway, Alex and I just got along. We both love house music, games and traveling, obvz. And we both kinda got stuck at Mama Sa. How it's supposed to BE!

Me and Alex at Mama Sa. 

So what else happened in Hau Thao village...

1. On the first night in Hau Thao I got the major jitters about the bugs. After the crab/spider scare, I was on edge. There were 8 guests the night I arrived and we were all hanging on the porch. When you've got bright lights on a dark night, creatures are gonna come hang out. Bee-like things the size of birds. Unpredictable, flapping moths. All sorts of crawlies creeping everywhere. We had great music going, and the vibe was otherwise perfect, but I was so jumpy about the bugs that I just couldn’t muster the courage to go upstairs to my room and go to sleep. I stayed up until 3am on the porch. When I finally went up to my room and got inside my mosquito net I was just super freaked out. I kept thinking I was gonna wake up with a tarantula on me or being eaten alive by gargantuan moths. I was texting with both Molly and Lisa, like, “guys I can’t sleep, I’m surrounded by jungle bugs. Something’s gonna get me!!!”   When I woke up the next morning I was back to chillin. I realized this has been a pattern: Whenever I’m staying in the mountains, it takes me one night to sink in. I learn where the bugs hang out and what their escape routes are (and mine). I learn where to duck my head so I don't wear a giant spider web as a hat. Once I get my bearings, I’m good. And then I get stuck for a week.

2. Mama Sa’s house was definitely the “cool” house. Everyone from the village hung out there – there were people of all ages showing up at all hours of the day.

3. Ba (7-year-old son) taught me how to count to 100. I fucking CRUSHED IT. With any local I met in the village, if they started asking me questions about how long I'd been in Vietnam or if I would like to buy something I just started counting to 100 and they'd be like waaaoouuuuu. However, I later learned this was a local language and not Vietnamese so when I got back to Hanoi and started counting to 100 like it was a magic trick, no one had a clue what I was saying.

4. Su (20-year-old son) was always right about the rain. On 3 separate occasions he told me not to go down the hill to the shop (12 minute trek from the house) because big rain is coming. I did not listen. 3 times I came home drenched. 

5. One night at dinner Su told us the story of how he and Pang (his wife, who is 15) met. Normally Su’s English isn’t bad – we can communicate about the basics like whether it will rain or what time we will do the English lesson. When he told this particular story, though, he was struggling a bit. I so admired how hard he was trying, and I paid extremely close attention to follow along. Here’s what I got: Su and Pang knew each others’ faces because she lives in a different village 2km away. One day Su started talking to her and they exchanged Facebook deets. They proceeded to have a Facebook relationship even though they weren’t hanging out in person. One day Su suggested they meet up in Sapa Town because Pang was going there to do something with a guest she was hosting. They didn’t catch each other in Sapa Town. They tried again another time, and then within a couple of months Su asked Pang over Messenger if she would marry him. She said she didn’t know but then eventually she said yes. Su’s whole family went to Pang’s house to meet. Now Pang lives with Su’s family. They have been together 5 months but the actual wedding hasn’t happened yet. Mama Sa said it will be a party at their house. There is no ring. I heard something about the slaughtering of a water buffalo… but I am not clear about this part.

6. I helped Alex teach English a couple of times (I know Alex you did not NEED my help but you enjoyed it and so did the kids). It was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had and it has confirmed for me that I need to get TOEFL certified and teach at some point in the near future. Ba was special because he stood up to answer every question. Alex would be like, “Ba, what color is your shirt?” and Ba would stand up, say “green!” and then sit back down. "Ba, how old are you?" Ba would stand up, say "seven," and sit down. We learned colors, numbers, I/me/he/she/we/they, feelings, and some other stuff. We had a 2x3 chalkboard. That was it. Alex invented some games, like, first person to touch the thing in the room that is RED may be dismissed.

7. Ba and Chong would absolutely ABUSE the dogs. They had just got two new puppies, and this was actually not okay. One day Chong was tying the puppy’s arms together with a hair tie. Another day they were rolling up wet balls of tissue and pelting the dogs with them. The dogs seemed okay, but like…

8. Mama Sa’s homestay included 3 meals each day. Breakfast was a pancake (closer to Indian roti) with bananas and some eggs, lunch was usually a noodle soup or rice, and dinner was a feast. At dinner, everyone gets a bowl of rice, and then there are like 10 other plates of stuff on the table. You’ve got morning glory which is a leafy and stemmy green, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, tofu, meat of all kinds, spring rolls with rice noodles inside (DELICIOUS) and some other stuff. You just use your chopsticks to grab stuff off whatever plate, put it in your rice bowl and eat up. I already miss Mama Sa’s voice, forcing us to eat everything. “More eating! Eating everything! You no eating, big rain is coming. You eating everything!” 

Lunch at Mama Sa's.

One night when Alex and I were the only two guests, we were invited to eat dinner on Mama Sa's side of the house. (Normally they would come to the guest side). Mama Sa is on my left with the silver piece in her hair.

9. In many homes in Vietnam they ferment their own rice wine. Mama Sa calls it Happy Water. It tastes like Sake and Vodka had a baby. Meaning, it’s disgusting. It's drunk from shot glasses. Each shot is called a CHUKA (pronounced CHOO-KAH) and every time you take one, you cheers and say "Chukaaaaa!"  It's a fun little buzz and the hangover isn’t bad. One night I was in Mama Sa’s side of the house and I saw a Poland Spring-style water jug filled with… something. It looked like mold. Like someone had cut up sponges and soaked them in this jug to turn to rot. I’m thinking yiiikes, wtf is that. Mama Sa sees me see the jug and goes, “Happy Water!” Oh, like what I’ve been drinking for five nights now.

After that first night at Mama Sa's, I just felt home. I am sure it was the lush green mountains that I had been missing for so long. Or the daily trekking. Or the kids always being around. Or the daily walks to the shop down the hill getting drenched in the rain every fucking time and just not caring because I had a line to hang my wet clothes on and a chair to sit on and most importantly good people to spend time with. Or it could have been that I had made it there alone. When I arrived at Mama Sa's I had come solo from Hanoi. I found her place on my own and arrived on my own and so it felt in some way like it was mine before I even got there. Like my destiny in that village was my own to write. When it turned out to be even better than I had imagined, I felt accomplished – without any recommendations or internets, I had found home. Alone. 

Over the course of a week, new people came through Mama Sa each day. Most stayed 1-2 nights. All were sound humans (see what I did there). Since my arrival I was the only person who had stayed a week (besides Alex). I was ready to hit up another mountain region. Alex had 3 weeks left on his visa and wanted to see more of Vietnam so he came with me. Mama Sa and her husband drove us in their 4WD to Sapa Town so we could catch the bus the next morning. When she dropped us off, Mama Sa gave me a bracelet and Alex a ring. We had big hugs. Alex and I stayed one night in Sapa Town. The next morning we would catch the bus to Bac Ha, a little town about 3 hours away.

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