Sunday, March 22, 2009

Vietnam: Day 2-Present, Part IV: Ba Na Mountain

After Adam left, I trudged through the next few days with little enthusiasm for traveling on my own. I made a valiant attempt at exploring a new place solo when I made the journey to Ba Na Mountain, which is outside of Danang.

I had intended to stay in Danang for an evening in order to take some time to decide what to do next. I had read about several options in my guidebook. However, when I arrived in Danang and located my chosen hotel, I discovered that it was closed and under-construction. At the very same moment, a motorbike taxi driver had spotted me and quickly pulled up beside me. “Motorbike? Where are you going?” Hmmmm, I thought to myself, Where am I going? I took the two events combined as a sign that I wasn’t meant to stay in Danang for the evening. And, I suddenly heard myself blurt out, “Ba Na Mountain.”

My experience at Ba Na Mountain was definitely an adventure, but more appropriately classified as a misadventure. It is an old French Hill Station at 1485m above sea level and was used by the French as an escape from the summer heat. The Lonely Planet guidebook says, “Rain usually falls in the section between 700m and 1200m above sea level, but around the hill station itself, the sky is usually clear, the view is spectacular, and the air is fresh and cool.” There is no mention of there being an off-season and, unbeknownst to me, that’s exactly what time of year it was. I would discover that during the off-season, it is often rainy and consumed in dense fog, especially at the top around the hill station itself.

From the base of the mountain, the climb up is so steep and windy that it requires the hiring of a local, who has the skills and a high-powered motorbike, to complete the journey to the hill station. Initially, I thought that I had chosen well. As we ascended, I could see more and more into the valley below and the view was spectacular. But the higher we got, the colder and foggier it got and the less I could see. By the time we arrived at the only hotel, I could barely see five feet in front of me. In addition, I was informed (through mime since no one spoke English) that I was the one and only guest. I pondered the situation. I had chosen poorly.

I was determined to be just as content traveling solo as I was with Adam. I considered what I would’ve done if someone else were with me and I knew that I had to embrace the entire experience by staying for at least one evening. I arranged for the driver to pick me up the next morning at 8am and braced myself for a long, cold, damp evening of being with…me.

I was assigned a room, where I quickly put on a few more layers before heading out to explore. There were stone walkways and staircases surrounding the area, which combined with the approaching nightfall, fog and quiet, created a pretty eerie atmosphere. The first thing I came upon was a monkey in a cage. Well, at least I’m not the only guest, I thought. I continued down a staircase and ended up in a large walled-in open area. In the center sat a stone Buddha, 24-meters high and, even though it was engulfed by fog, it still impressed upon me feelings of awe and wonder. It was amazingly peaceful and I couldn’t help but to feel like I was in some kind of magical, fairytale land. I continued on down more stone staircases and walkways that led through the forest and around the mountaintop until I was too scared to go any further. At which point, I decided to head back to the hotel.

Once I was back to the safety of my room, I assured myself that I had made the most of the experience; I had done my best and now it was time to buckle-down until morning. It was probably around 4pm when I crawled beneath the covers, fully-clothed, with You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers. I was prepared to read until it was a reasonable enough time to go to sleep.

Three hours and a hundred or so pages later, there was a knock at my door. It was the old man from reception. He was smiling and excited. He gestured for me to follow him. I quickly put on my shoes and he led me to another room. With a wide grin, he pointed at a German couple that was being shown the room, “Frien,” he said. He was so happy for me that I couldn’t help but to smile and I cannot deny that I did feel a bit of relief at the sight of them.

We introduced ourselves and I went along with them as they were being shown the more expensive rooms available. They were on a prepaid tour and it was those rooms which were included. We walked to another building that was across the courtyard. When we initially saw the room, it appeared as though it was so clean that the floors and staircases gleamed. But as we stepped into it, we realized that it was actually covered in a centimeter of water. The air was so filled with moisture that a layer of condensation had formed, covering every surface. Neither the German couple nor I let on that the accommodations were a bit under par. Suffice it to say, they elected to stay in the building where my room was located.

Later that evening, we laughed together at the absurdity of the entire situation. The Vietnamese had so proudly taken us to the "more expensive" building and had been quite surprised that the couple didn’t choose to stay there. We chatted through the evening, swapping travel stories. They had booked the trip in Germany as a full tour and Ba Na Mountain was part of the itinerary. They just assumed that since they only had a few short weeks, that a professional, Vietnamese tour company would be their best bet as far as making the most of their trip and getting to the best places, easily. It was a fair assumption, but then again, welcome to Vietnam.

Then it was my turn and the woman asked me how I had come to Ba Na Mountain. I told her that I had read about it in my guidebook and, in my experience, hill stations are usually quite pleasant and beautiful. She asked me how I had gotten to the top, and I told her that I had taken a motorbike. A look of astonishment came over her face as she proceeded to express how brave she thought I was for coming on my own. How much of a difference is there between brave and stupid? I wondered.

The next morning, we said our goodbyes and wished each other happy and safe travels. I hopped on the back of my driver’s bike, glad that I had survived the night at Ba Na and looking forward to returning to Danang and civilization.

I guess not all coincidences are signs, but I’m gonna keep looking out for them anyway.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Vietnam: Day 2-Present, Part III: Adam

After my first couple of weeks in Hanoi, my friend, Adam, arrived from Vermont on November 9th. I was excited to see him, but definitely a bit nervous about us being travel companions. Adam was one of the first people I met when I moved to Vermont in 2005 (and one of the first people I told that I was leaving). Over the years, we had gotten to know each other fairly well and had had our good moments and our bad moments. Like most close friends, we knew each other well enough to know that sometimes we’d like to kill each other.

As soon as Adam arrived, we hit the ground running. The morning after his arrival, we were off to the Perfume Pagoda, which is a day trip from Hanoi. The morning after that, we were off to Ha Long Bay for 3 days and 2 nights. On the return boat trip from Ha Long Bay, we decided to head straight to Sa Pa on the night train that same evening. We spent 5 wonderful days in Sa Pa and then took the night train back to Hanoi. Upon our return, we headed for Jess’ place for a quick shower and to repack our bags prior to getting on a plane that afternoon to our final destination together, Hoi An.

With such a fast-paced, packed itinerary, I would have placed my bet on the ‘kill each other’ end of things. Instead, he had been a perfect travel partner for me. He was social and got along well with all the other travelers we met along the way. He wanted to experience as much as possible in 2 weeks, which kept me motivated and saying yes! Yes, to the Thy wedding party we were invited to in Sa Pa. Yes, to renting motorbikes and driving through the countryside. Yes, to staying out too late and drinking too much. Oh yes, to designing my very own custom fit leather boots in Hoi An!

Along with all of the guesthouses, buses, boats, trains, planes, motorbikes and pushbikes, our time together was filled with laughter, good food, good conversation and adventure. His visit meant a lot to me. Even though, at that time, I had only been away for a mere two months, I was missing Vermont and my friends. I was still questioning myself and hadn’t yet made new friends. His mere presence provided me with the connection that I needed between my former life in Vermont and my future life in Vietnam. In the end, I was reminded that the other side of the world really isn’t so far away after all.

Vietnam: Day 2-Present, Part II: Hanoi

It rained for eleven days straight when I initially arrived in Hanoi on October 29th. It was the worst rain in 35 years, flooding the entire city and killing nearly 100 people. The morning after I arrived, my friend, Jessica, and I were trapped in her apartment due to her alley being filled with water. I had come, not only to visit her, but also to decide if it was the city in which I wanted to live. To my amazement and with little sound reasoning on my part, it was.

I immediately liked Hanoi much more than Saigon. It’s still a big city, but it’s held onto much of its character and charm of days past, especially in the Old Quarter, where the narrow streets conceal a network of alleys teeming with life hidden from the thruway traveler. Most streets are named after what goods can be found on them. There’s Cha Ca Street if you’re in the mood for roasted fish; Hang Ruoi for clam worms and; Lo Su if you’re in need of a coffin.

All over the city, women carry their fruit, vegetables, or wares for sale, hanging from a stick balanced over one shoulder, while the men wait at every corner, sitting on their motorbikes for a fare. There are lakes and parks scattered about, which is one of my non-negotiables for any city in which I’m going to live. As an avid runner and former Vermont resident, being able to see and move uninhibited through a small corner of the world is important to me (even if that corner is less than a mile in circumference).

After a few days of catching up with Jess, she was off on holiday to Phuc Quoc Island and I was solo again for the first time since Day 1. I decided to stay at the Aussie-run Hanoi Backpackers Hostel because the idea of exploring a rainy, unfamiliar city on my own wasn’t very appealing. Within a few days, I met a number of other solo travelers to share meals and explore a bit. We navigated the bus system, walked for hours, visited museums, checked out the traditional water puppets show, and waited (often with a beer in hand) for the rain to stop. I was unimpressed with the dreary weather and, after living among transients for over a week, I was exhausted as well.

Ten years ago, I did the backpacker-thing through Europe. It can be an alluring way to travel, especially if you’re on a budget. But at this point in my life and in my travels, moving from place to place in a matter of days, living out of a backpack filled with smelly, worn-out clothes, and having the same conversations over and over again with every person you meet, no longer appeals to me. I do believe in it, I just no longer want to do it.

So, after a couple of weeks of witnessing the constant flux of people on the move, I decided to remain. It wasn’t because I loved it. Hell, I wasn’t even sure if I liked it. It wasn’t because of a job (I didn’t have one yet). The truth is I couldn’t be bothered with choosing and moving to somewhere else. I figured that I could do a year anywhere and Hanoi was just as good of a place as the next.

Five months later, as I sit here writing this, it’s a beautiful, sunny, afternoon. A warm breeze is blowing through my wide-open, balcony door and French-style windows. I can hear birds chirping, people moving about below and horns honking in the distance. It is both peaceful and vibrant all at once. And, as I reflect on my life here, I realize that I can finally say I’m happy.