Bonjour, friends! I write to you in a delirious, sleepless haze from a café in Hanoi, where I arrived around 6 am this morning on a sleeper train from Dong Hoi. I wasn't sure what to expect with the sleeper train, but it was a comforable journey -- albeit a loud one, as the train roared, clanked, hissed, rumbled, screamed, wailed, rattled, hummed and sputtered all night long.
Having already been assigned a sleeper berth for my short train ride the other day between Dong Ha and Dong Hoi, I had an idea of what to expect. Four beds, each fitted with sheets and a comforter and pillow, and surprisingly comfortable and clean. I had no idea how to climb up to my bed on the ride between Dong Ha and Dong Hoi, but a Vietnamese woman in my compartment showed me how (there's no ladder, just small foot rests), and reminded me I needed to take my shoes off before climbing up. (Whoops!)
The DMZ (demilitarized zone) tour I did between Hue and Dong Ha was really interesting, though very disturbing and sad. Obviously you get the Vietnamese take on things, which is probably as one-sided as the American take on things might be. Although there was definitely a lot of hyperbole in the captions at the museum at Khe Sanh; lots of writing that was questionable or debatable (there was a picture of a group of Marines praying and the caption reads something like "US Army praying for deliverance from this hell", and you think, what if they were just having some kind of small church service? How do you know that's what they were praying for?). Very interesting though to see the Vietnam War through the "other side's" eyes, even if it's a biased point-of-view. (I guess everything is going to be biased to some extent, but the Vietnamese take on things definitely feels like propaganda aimed at stirring up rousing patriotism -- can't blame them for this I suppose, it's not like you visit Revolutionary or Civil War monuments in the US and see a sympathetic view for the British or Confederate Army. Still, I think in this day and age, what you'd find at a museum in the US would try to give the facts without as much spin.)
In addition to Khe Sanh, we visited the Vinh Moc tunnels, where hundreds of families lived underground for three years or so to escape bombing attacks by the US. If you're looking to feel extremely claustrophobic and tall and grateful you've never had to live in a network of hand-dug tunnels to survive a war, it's worth a visit.
After the tour, the bus driver dropped me off near the Dong Ha train station. More like, near the back side of the Dong Ha station and sort of pointed me in the right direction. I walked aways across a big gravelly road towards a bunch of train cars, and then nervously crossed about six train tracks to get to the station. Uh, thanks bus driver? Good fun though as I kept asking the various workers standing around the tracks "safe? Safe?" which was met with giggles and laughter. (By "good fun", I mean good fun for them and nerve-wracking for me: are they laughing because a train is coming? Because I look stupid running across train tracks with a big backpack strapped to my back? Because this happens every time the DMZ tour drops an unsuspecting tourist off at the train station in Dong Ha?)
The ride to Dong Hoi was uneventful, minus my Vietnamese friend instructing me on how to climb up to my berth without looking like a total idiot. Her English was near perfect, from what I could discern from behind her face mask, which she kept on for our entire conversation and train ride. Only at the end as the train was pulling into the station did she pull it down momentarily to apply lipstick, then pulled it back up.
I arrived in Dong Hoi and made my way to my hotel. I'd had virtually no sleep the night before at my hostel in Hue; no sooner would one person go to bed than another would arrive and make noise. I collapsed into my clean bed and slept solidly in the peace and quiet for hours.
Around noon I checked out and asked the woman at reception where I could get food and toothpaste. She pointed me down the road and I bounced out of the hotel only to be hit with a blast of sun and heat that nearly knocked me over. I tried to dart into shade but with the sun directly overhead, I found myself walking only in narrow bands of shadows cast by the sun beating down on electrical wires. The few people who passed me on motorbikes turned to stare at me as I walked, presumably wondering what was wrong with me for walking around in the scorching heat.
Minutes passed and a headache was starting to come on. Where was this grocery store?! Where was the cafe?! Why was I outside?! Why were there no trees?!? Why hadn't I picked somewhere sensible to go on my thirtysomething vision quest, like Siberia, or Minneapolis? What was I doing here?
I crossed the street and then another, finally a guy on a motorbike pulled over and asked if I wanted a ride and then pointed to a shop across the street when I said "grocery store." I got my toothpaste and began to look for a place to get pho or rice or anything. Cafés were open but no one was present; it was like the whole city had been mysteriously killed in some kind of apocalyptic day of reckoning. Is everyone zombies now? Did I miss the rapture?
I felt like I might pass out. I got back inside the hotel lobby and collapsed in a chair. The reception lady took pity on me and moved the fan on me and grabbed me a bottle of water. She had told me I could walk to the bus stop for Phong Nha. "I need a taxi," I croaked. "It's too hot."
"Yes, too hot," she said.
"Nothing was open for food," I said. "Well, everything was open but no one was around."
"Yes, too hot. Everyone sleeping. Too hot to work right now."
Kiiiiiiind of wish that info had been relayed before I spent thirty minutes walking around hot streets with the sun beating down on me. I could barely see straight. Just then the taxi arrived, so I climbed in and we set off for the bus stop.
Except the driver wouldn't follow the map. According to the map, it was straight down the road. He made a U-turn. I pointed at the map. He spoke in Vietnamese. I pointed at the map. He turned around again. Then he made a left. I kept pointing at the map, he kept driving straight. He pulled up in a bus depot filled with parked buses and motioned for me to get out. I left my backpack his car and asked the few men standing around "Phong Nha? Phong Nha?" They stared back at me, letharically.
Finally one guy walked by and said "Phong Nha" and pointed in the direction of several buses. Ok, fine, I thought, grabbing my backpack and flinging 20,000 dong at the taxi driver. I headed into the station and tried to buy a ticket. "Phong Nha?" I said to the man behind a counter. He repeated "Phong Nha" and pointed in a vague direction elsewhere.
My confusion was growing, as was the headache burning behind my eyes. Out of the air conditioned taxi I was sweating again, and I felt my pulse beating in my temples. I kept saying "Phong Nha," but each person I asked seemed to point in different directions and objects. Were they pointing at a bus? In the direction of Phong Nha? Was I mispronouncing the word and they were pointing at some inexplicable unknown off in the distant horizon? The pain in my head was crushing; I could feel tears edging their way to my eyes, and I began fighting them back hard, the voice in my head screaming, you know they don't receive crying well here, showing emotion is not done, you have got to get it together!!! I took refuge behind a narrow column, hoping it shielded me as tears began to pour down my face. Hopefully the tears look like sweat, I thought. I'll just pretend I am dripping with tear-sweat. It's like regular sweat, just more emotional. I wiped my face on my shirt and emerged from my hiding place behind the column, trying to avoid the glances of the men in the bus depot.
A man said "Phong Nha" and pointed at a red bus, which conflicted with what the woman at the hotel had said; she'd said it was a green bus, B4. The man at the red bus said "2" over and over, pointing at an invisible watch on his wrist. I looked at my phone. 1 pm. I was hungry, thirsty, hot and about to burst into a cry fest from which there might not be a return. I might die in a puddle of tears here. I pictured myself crying so much I simply evaporated in the heat, vanishing into a small puff of vapor, forever known as the Weak Foreigner Who Died Cuz The Sun Was Too Strong And Getting To Phong Nha Was Too Impossible. I thought of the men praying in the photo in Khe Sanh and decided they probably were praying to be saved from this hell -- from the war, maybe, but definitely from the oppressive heat.
Shade. I needed shade. And food. And water. I wandered around the area around the bus depot for a second, seeing if any cafes looked OK. Mostly there were just a handful of men sitting in the shade in tiny plastic chairs, eyeing me with suspicion. I saw a sign for Com (rice) across the street and walked towards it, falling in one of the small blue chairs.
A woman sleeping in a hammock saw me sit down and adjusted herself upright.
"Com," I whimpered, pointing at the sign. "Com."
I would have eaten boiled snake at this point if that's what she'd set in front of me, but instead she put down a bowl of rice and a dish of some sautéed greens and a plate of some roasted pork and tofu with tomato sauce (which, btw, I had for the first time on my homestay on the Mekong Delta and is absolutely delicious). I began to eat, slowly at first, then began to pick up speed, guzzling it down with water from a large jug sitting next to a tree. Maybe she was feeling sorry for me, the bright red overheated Western girl eating alone and clumsily shoving food into her face with chopsticks, but she sat down from me with a plate of her own food and began to eat, smiling at me, and rising occasionally to keep piling more tofu on the plate.
A man sat down at the café and began to eat as well. They spoke to each other in Vietnamese, and I tuned them out, focusing on drinking water and eating my delicious tofu and feeling the tears subside. "Phong Nha," I heard him say. The woman turned to me. "Phong Nha?"
"Phong Nha." I nodded meekly.
She pointed at a little blue sign partially covered by the leaves of a tree.
Sure enough, the little blue sign depicted a shuttle bus with the words "Dong Hoi-Phong Nha" at the bottom.
Phong Nha? More like Phong Yes, yes, a million times yes! I wanted to jump up and embrace her, my Guardian Angel of the bus stop and tofu and unlimited drinking water. I pictured us twirling around together, like at the end of a movie when they announce the war is over and Pa is alive and they didn't have to sell the farm and it's all going to be glorious, just glorious! I've been sitting at the stop for the shuttle to Phong Nha this whole time! This is why everyone kept pointing in some indiscernable direction! It's a miracle! A travel miracle!
The bus pulled up a few minutes later and I guzzled another glass of water and boarded andarrived in Phong Nha a couple hours later without incident, driving way out into the countryside past endless rice paddies and small villages, into the limestone jungle-covered mountains dramatically rising up out of the flatness. Getting here may have been a struggle, but it was worth it.
The next day I did a tour of Phong Nha National Park, which included some driving around to some beautiful vantage points, a visit to a temple, and venturing into Paradise Cave and Dark Cave. Paradise Cave was discovered only a few years ago and it is magnificent -- just an enormous cavern rising to 70m (225 feet) in various places, filled with massive stalacites. For Dark Cave, the group ziplined across a river, swam to the entrance, walked down a ways into the cave, swam further in, then took off our life vests to trek through a muddy narrow passageway for a long time, until we were submerged up to our waists in mud. It was so surreal and alien, to be so far in the earth, manuevering our way through tiny mud corridors, as if we were miniatures in a giant potter's creation. After returning to the water, we swam further into another part of the cave, then swam back in the dark (personally, I found this terrifying!). We then got back to the cave entrance and kayaked back to the opposite side of the river where we'd began. A day of some real outdoorsy adventure, followed up with two hours spent rinsing mud out of my bathing suit and running shorts.
I tried to venture out yesterday to check out this café "near" the hostel I was staying at, only to find out it was a good 40 min walk away. So I lounged around the hostel, writing a few emails, beginning my research for the things I plan to do now that I'm in Hanoi: visit Cat Ba Island (in Ha Long Bay) and go trekking in Sapa. I took the bus back to Dong Hoi in the afternoon, and killed time people watching near the train station for a couple hours before boarding my train to Hanoi.
That's been the amazing thing about this trip so far: I have So. Much. Time. It's been one month and I feel like I have just been so leisurely and slow about everything. It's the opposite of a whirlwind trip. I've had giant chunks of Internet-less time to sit around and just observe stuff. Which is such a luxury and so strange, especially because it's such an antidote to the typical Internet-filled life where everything is a "refresh" away from new content, new news, new distractions. Instead, in the downtime-without-Wifi, I'm forced to just pay attention to the world unfold in real time: watching how the clouds float across the sky, how the little kids play and fall and cry and laugh and waddle around, how the people here are so laidback and unfussed about everything, wondering about their daily struggles and joys and dramas.
Thankfully I will have a lot of time here in Hanoi, which I can already tell I'll like from the short ride from the train station to my hotel. I hope to head to Cat Ba Island (on Ha Long Bay) and Sapa, but in between I will have plenty of time here to relax, sightsee and watch the world go by. And hopefully not pass out from heatstroke.