I'm sitting at the public computer in this nice little hostel in Hue, Vietnam. A light but steady rain is washing the streets but the sun is strong enough to pierce the clouds and illuminate the land. I'm waiting for the weather to improve so I can get on Lucky Lucy, my Honda Win. She will take me to Da Nang in the south where tomorrow I have an interview to be accepted in a college ran by Canadians.
They will train me to become a teacher so that I can work, here in Vietnam. If everything goes well, I'll be putting my bags down for a while and get a more in-depth look at this amazing culture.
I've been in Vietnam for 3 weeks now, all of it has been great.
Right from the start, crossing the land border (a small bridge over a river) from China to Vietnam, I've had a huge weight lifted off my shoulders and been walking around, contempt.
First of all, everybody is warm. So warm. The locals are not tired at all of tourists. They stare at my tattoos a lot but if I smile at them, they smile back, 99% of the time. And what beautiful smiles.
No one is shitting in the streets, or spitting in the bus, or shouting at me for no fucking reason. This was a reality the second I stepped on Vietnam soil. Just a small river separates China from Vietnam and yet, the difference is stunning.
The food is delicious, not that spicy, and if you stick to street vendors you can get away with spending $10 a day for your three meals. A beer is usually $1. Not 2% Chinese stuff either. I've had a few hangovers already.
Around the middle of the country, near Hue, the coast with sunny warm beaches is just 50km away from wet and cloudy mountains. Diversity at such a close range.
My first night in Vietnam was spent on a sleeper train, traveling with Claudio the Italian basketball coach. After Nilkanth, he's my second favorite person that I traveled with on this trip. We shared a booth on the train with an Irish guy who froze when he heard The Pogues softly playing on my speaker. We shared some beers and stories.
We arrived in Hanoi at 5am, groggy, sleepy. There I would get my first Vietnam lesson: money is fucking confusing. 20,000 Dongs roughly equals $1. Our cab costs us 150,000 and as we all try to pay the driver at the same time, he starts moving money around, trying to confuse us as to who paid what amount and he is slightly successful. At the end of the transaction I overpaid by 30,000 Dongs and realized as he was driving away. I get very angry, until I realize that I only lost $1,50 in the transaction. Second lesson of Vietnam: count your change. Third lesson: everything's cheap.
We check in our hotel where the receptionist is sleeping in a small folder bed behind the counter. He tells us to put our bags down and go sleep in the common area, we're too early to check in. We gladly comply and sleep until 10am, after which we get to our rooms, drop our bags, have a little shower and workout, and go explore.
We get some cheap food and promptly get lost in the Old Quarters, the backpackers area, where every street has a commerce specialty. We see food street, bar street, metal street, bike repair street, clothes street. We see scooters everywhere, people just sitting around waiting, little dogs, birds in cages chirping away in the front of little stores, street vendors, cooked dog.
It's Friday, and when the sun goes down around 6pm, all the little bars and restaurants put small plastic stools out and the streets get clogged with beer drinkers, both westerners and locals. We quickly find out about Beer Hoi (tap beer), rumored to be brewed in a day but I don't know how this is possible. We sit next to the keg because, well, one mug is 5,000 Dong (25 cents), the beer is cold and the air is warm. After a few hours our duo of travelers has evolved into a full group of 10 people, some backpacking, some on holiday, some ex-pats. As we sit and talk and laugh, the street sounds of scooters, laughter, talking and dog barking lets in something different: the beautiful melody of 2 violins backed up by flute. Meters from us, 3 beautiful girls in black dresses are playing a free show. I am in love with Vietnam.
At midnight, the police shows up and closes everything. The tightly packed crowd quickly disappears but we are approached by club promoters. They take us to what looks like a fancy building, and on the 5th floor a dark club with loud music and a dance floor swallows us whole. We drink and dance until 5am.
We have to take a bus to Ha Long bay at 8am. It was rough.
We got packed in a small gray bus expertly navigating the small crowded streets. In the back, 5 Australian bros are talking loudly and laughing. They carry a huge boombox. Everyone else on the bus is quiet. I secretly hope that they are not on our boat tour, for I feel like taking it easy tonight.
We spent 2 nights in Ha Long Bay. The first night we spent drinking more Beer Hoi on the roof of the boat with other travelers. The bros were on a different tour so we got to relax. We had the crew turn off all the lights of the boat so we could just lay down and look at the stars while trading travel stories and everyone was nice. The next day we spent on Cat Ba island, where I meet a very dysfunctional couple of a 60-year old Vietnam millionaire woman who bathes topless, and a 30-year old scruffy-looking Brit. Weird conversations ensued.
I ended up getting pretty sick from swimming in the dirty bay where our bungalow was. I was afraid of Dengue but I just got mild fever and a cough that stuck with me for 2 weeks, until I resolved to spitting out the yellow shit that was coming up. I stayed a total of 8 days in Hanoi, relaxing, trying out the food, walking around, looking at INTESOL schools and streaming hockey very early in the morning, from the hotel lobby computers. I absolutely loved Hanoi and wouldn't mind working there for a while.
Buying my motorbike, that I paid $230 for - helmet, rack and bungee cords included - I ran into a German couple I met on mount Hua Shan in China, a month earlier. They're also buying a bike (that I later learned we should have paid $50 for) and we decide to travel south together, for safety's sake.
We left the next day on the first step to an amazing journey.