The horns. It always comes back to the horns.
We sat, two by two, white-knuckled and whispering Hail Marys, as our bus driver, cellphone in hand, pressed on with the urgency of a husband getting his pregnant wife to the hospital. Outside, a cacophony of car horns sounded, punctuated every 20 seconds by our bus’ staccato blare: BEEPbeepbeepbeep… Making it all the more comical was the soft elevator jazz playing on the radio.
We were on our way to Ha Long Bay, but it might as well have been the circus. Little did we know the highs and lows that would follow.
The highs: kayaking in the bay, eating plates upon plates of food, and spending the night in one of the most beautiful places in the world. The lows: questionable tour planning, a growing headache, and one grumpy septuagenarian. (His first words to me: “This must be the worst boat in the bay!” Our boat quickly bonded in our shared dislike of the man.)
Little, too, did we know that it was only the second-worst bus ride we’d endure in the week to come.
10 hours from Hanoi to Hue. The sleeper bus from hell.
Southeast Asia is already cramped enough for anybody over six feet, but nowhere is it more apparent than the moment you get into a sleeper “bunk.” Sure, the seats recline, but the real challenge comes in fitting one’s legs into the compartment in front — a task made even tougher when sharing the seat with one’s bags. Try as I might, I kept hitting walls in all directions. Eventually, I settled for leaving my knees way up in my seat and bear-hugging my knapsack. I might as well have been a football player in a clown car.
Our bus finally arrived in Hue shortly after 4am, leaving the four of us to stagger along the main street in search of our hostel. Even when we eventually made it, we were out of luck — it was shuttered closed until the morning. Mercifully, another hostel let us and other weary backpackers into their lobby to crash for a few hours. 7am, and we were fast asleep on the couch.
Good morning, Vietnam! And good night, too.
Tales from the road:
1. Throw all the sights and travel experiences to the side — my biggest highlight from the past week? Roger Federer is a Major winner once again, and he did it by toppling his greatest rival as a 35-year-old 17th seed. The Maestro, back with a performance for the ages.
2. By sheer circumstance, our journey through Vietnam coincided with the country’s most revered holiday, the Lunar New Year — known locally as Tết. During this period, millions of Vietnamese get together with family and friends, pay respect to their ancestors, and celebrate with fireworks and festivities. Also by sheer circumstance, the holiday has made getting around Vietnam a royal pain. Flights, trains… everything’s booked.
3. Our group has been down lately, but not out yet. Both Sara and Scott were hit with food poisoning in our first week in Vietnam. Lucky Sara, hers came during our never-ending night bus voyage. She’s taken enough bad luck for the four of us combined.
4. It’s remarkable, the power of a smile. Time and again, we’ve been greeted with kindness by Vietnamese young and old — from the simple nod of a shopkeeper to the beaming grin of a two-year-old. We spent the evening of Tết chatting with a family outside of their Bánh mì shop, enjoying their warmth and hospitality — language barrier be damned. In a week in which there’s been altogether too much hate and hostility towards other cultures, it was a welcome reminder: we’re all the same family.
Things I’ve seen:
1. A thousand islands.
Well… the bus ride sucked, but this? This, I could get used to. Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay is blessed with seemingly endless beauty, leaving no surprise as to why so many tour boats frequent its turquoise waters. (For the record: the total is closer to two thousands islets.)
2. A hundred coffees.
Here’s a look at the egg coffee I mentioned last time. (Also, remember that part about language barriers be damned? Well, sometimes it leads to interesting results. The other day, Warren tried ordering an iced coffee with milk to go and ended up with two black coffees and two teas, served at a table. You can’t always get what you want.)
3. Hue’s Imperial City.
The highlight of Hue, the buildings date back to the 1800s under Emperor Gia Long. Here’s a glimpse of the side gate.
What I’ve been reading/listening to:
Charles Bukowski – Notes of a Dirty Old Man
Eddie Vedder – “Guaranteed”
TiRon & Ayomari feat. beatnich – “A Lot On Your Mind”
(Header photo by Scott Riepert)