So listen. Vietnam can get cold. Who knew? Apparently not me or any other backpackers traveling in the country because we were layering our tank tops and using socks as gloves. It didn’t get colder than the high 40’s so I realize that my fellow Midwesterners won’t have a shred of pity for me, but when you’re ill-prepared for such weather and just coming from the beach it’s BRUTAL. And it gets worse…
For starters, our drop off from Phong Nha was less than smooth. We arrived in town at the
appropriate ridiculous hour of 4am. Typically when there’s a stop the bus driver will flip on all of the lights and start yelling. “NINH BINH! NINH BINH! GET OFF, GET OFF, GET OOOOOFFFF!” Ahhh Vietnamese bus drivers – such charming folk. Oddly, this is what I now prefer after being presented with the alternative. The only reason I woke up and stumbled off at the correct stop was thanks to an Isreali guy I’d been chatting with earlier. I’d told him I was going to Ninh Binh, as was he and his friends.
He shook me out of my sleep asking, “Hey, aren’t you going to Ninh Binh?“
“Huh? Oh, yeah, yeah,” I replied lazily.
“Well this is it – you better get off.“
I sprang up, immediately shout whispering at Melanie in the seat behind me.
“Mel! Get your shit – this is our stop!“
“We gotta get off like NOW.”
No warning, no announcement. If you happened to be awake, you made your stop. If not, tough cookies. I know for a fact there were others on that bus who were supposed to get off at Ninh Binh, but I wasn’t sure where they were sitting or what the bus driver’s reaction would be if I started sounding the alarm. So we stumbled off into the freezing cold morning, barely both feet out the door before the bus sped off, heading north to Hanoi.
Dazed, we made our way into a small shop, which was mercifully open. They served us coffee and then demanded we pay them a ridiculous amount of dong (the local currency, which we never failed to laugh at) in order to take us to our hostel. I was cold, tired and on the verge of tears so I was more than willing to hand over my dong (hehe). Melanie, on the other hand, had reached her breaking point.
“Why are you always trying to rip us off?!” she shouted.
I tried to shush her, but it was no use. She’d had enough.
“Everyone in this country – all you want to do is RIP US OFF!!!“
Alas, it was a supply and demand situation. We needed to get to our hostel, he was our only option for getting there and wouldn’t budge on the price. So, much to Melanie’s dismay, we gave in. Upon arriving at the hostel we received another blow to our morale.
“We realize we can’t check in yet, but can we just go inside to warm up?” we asked the manager through chattering teeth.
“There is no inside.”
Sure enough, the “common area” was where we were standing – a covered cement slab with a few tables and chairs. The dorm room was comprised of flimsy walls, a roof that wasn’t attached to said walls, and a screen door.
We crept into the dorm, sat on the cold floor and huddled together for warmth. After about 30 minutes of intense shivering a
saint girl tapped us on the shoulders and instructed us to climb into her bed as she was leaving to catch an early bus. We didn’t even try to politely decline her offer. In fact, I think I shoved her out of the way as I dove under the mosquito net and deep into the comforter.
It sounds horrendous (and it was), but the hostel did have two major pluses: 1. An awesome group of travelers that we quickly formed a crew with and 2. The BEST pho I’ve ever tasted that was served steaming hot for breakfast.
Later that morning, succumbing to the idea that we couldn’t possibly get colder, a group of us hopped on some bikes for a boat cruise down the river and through the caves. The boat ride was beautiful (and the main reason I’d wanted to come to this hell hole in the first place), but what I most remember when I think of it was how slap-happy we were after our hellish morning. The woman who rowed our little boat shouted at us in Vietnamese as we stepped onto her vessel, “Whilay! Whilay! Whilay!” Is that what she was actually saying? Does it mean anything? We don’t know. But it became the word of the day, applicable in all situations.
“I’m TRYING to whilay,” I yelled back.
“Let’s go home and get whilayed.”
“My hands are completely whilayed.”
You get the picture.
That evening we bonded over the ridiculousness of the situation, huddled in a sleep-over-style circle, and passed around a bottle of whiskey that some unfortunate soul had left behind at our previous hostel in Phong Nha. I slept in everything I had, including my beanie and Melanie’s rain jacket, which acted as a windbreaker/insulator. The following morning, after a very cold night’s sleep, my mood had soured.
Our bus (MY LAST ONE) wasn’t until the evening, so trying to make the most of the day, we went off in search of some views of the river. What we faced to get there was something like a Vietnamese Oregon Trail. At the instruction of our hostel’s manager, we took the “short cut.” We slopped through ankle-deep mud in rice fields (which turned out to be MY breaking point), had numerous standoffs/staring contests with water buffalo, changed our course twice to avoid guard dogs that roamed freely and menacingly, and then climbed roughly 500 steps. But when we got there… the payoff was huge and the views were WHILAY. After a fairly extensive photo session we sat quietly, listening to music and reflecting on our time in Vietnam, which was rapidly coming to a close.
I missed Halong Bay (a Vietnamese staple and highlight for many travelers) in favor of a more adventurous route through Vietnam. It was the road less traveled and it ended up being one of the most rewarding and empowering parts of my trip to-date. Thank you, Vietnam for igniting my adventurous spirit and fanning the flame (sometimes a bit too enthusiastically).
After a raucous night in Hanoi, I hugged Melanie goodbye, promised to meet her in Thailand, and jumped in a cab for the airport – off in search of my next travel high.