It was cold at the homestay in northern Vietnam. I grabbed a blanket from the empty mattress pad next to me and put it on top of mine. That kept me warm and comfortable through the night. As I ate breakfast, I talked with the three travelers from Holland about medical school and how they needed a break. I told them about my travels, and we had a great conversation about finding the right path in life.
Before we left, two of the women from the house took a picture with me because of my height. They were dressed in beautiful local garments, and I tried my best to thank them for their wonderful hospitality and “happy water.”
Opi instructed us to hit the road, so Ben, Berry, and I strapped our backpacks onto our motorbikes and we were off. It was very foggy and humid outside. It was still cold, so I wore my coat and bike gloves.
We arrived at Lung Khuy Cave and started hiking to the entrance. The path was at a slight incline and on the side of a mountain. The fog was so thick; it was like walking into a cloud. Huge spider webs perched on top of bushes and looked like floating clouds among the foliage.
We passed a woman walking down the path with a huge bundle of tree stalks and leaves neatly bound to her back. It must have been three times her size. We had seen this while driving, but it was easier to see just how large the bundles were now that we were closer.
As we climbed the mountain, it got steeper and steeper and I started to sweat. I took off my coat and tied it around my waist. The path was dirt and then turned into flat stones. However, the fog made the stones wet and slippery. Because they were at a steep angle, I slipped a couple of times but was able to keep myself from falling. Then the path turned into steps. So many steps.
We arrived at the cave after 40 minutes and had it all to ourselves, which made it peaceful but also a little creepy. There was a slightly elevated metal path that wrapped around the cave. As we walked through, Opi told us stories about the cave. He pointed to a patch of bright green grass. It started growing when they put lights in that section.
Opi explained that the locals believe there are spirits in the cave because one time, a guy and his son broke a stalactite off and took it home. Shortly after, they died mysteriously. The cave has only been open to the public since 2015.
As we headed back down the mountain, my right knee was hurting pretty badly. It had been hurting on and off for the last two months, which was really frustrating me. I tried to ignore the pain by talking and distracting myself. Then I realized I was talking a lot. I said, “Opi is probably annoyed with me.” He chimed in, “I like listening. It’s easier for me to understand your accent over the English and European accents.”
We stopped for lunch, and as we were walking to our table, I noticed that some women were staring at me. I asked Opi if they were staring because my water bottle was so big. He said, “No, it’s your height.” I smiled and sat down. We ate fried rice with an egg on top, and it was delicious.
Before we left our lunch spot, I put my rain cover on my backpack because it was slightly misting outside. Right after we started driving, it was full-on raining. I regretted not putting my rain jacket on. My coat was keeping me warm, but it was quickly getting covered in water. It was so cold that I could see my breath.
The water droplets were so tiny that I couldn’t have my visor down. Once the tiny droplets covered it, I lifted it up so that I could see. Rain was getting into my eyes and water dripped from my visor onto my face. I squinted and tried my best to see in the fog. The visibility was poor as we climbed the mountain.
Going down the mountain was slippery, so Opi took it slow. Adding to all of this were trucks racing by. We were all just trying to get to the bottom safely. All I could think about was how cold and wet I was.
When we got back down to the base of the mountain, it was warmer and no longer raining. The roads were still wet, but I was so relieved to have the rain out of my eyes. After passing through some towns, we were back on the flat, main road and stopped to take pictures. I put my rain jacket on because my coat was too wet.
Two French guys and one girl stopped to take pictures too. They had just left Ha Giang and noticed my wet helmet and asked if it was raining. I explained that it was raining up the mountain and they should put on their wet weather gear. I also told them to make sure they down-shift into second gear when climbing the mountain.
Shortly after, we arrived back in Ha Giang. After dropping our backpacks at Opi’s hostel, we drove to a massage place to help our sore muscles. Opi translated for us, and we all agreed to do the herbal bath and a massage. I was taken upstairs to a small room with a massage bed. Then the petite woman showed me a door on the other side of the room where a bathtub was. She turned the water on and put herbs inside. She didn’t speak any English, so we had a hard time communicating. I was trying to ask how long I should stay in there, but she didn’t tell me. When I had asked Opi earlier, he said the bath would be around 30 minutes.
The woman left the room. I was uncomfortable undressing because there was just a frosted glass wall between the small room with a bathtub and the massage room. Then there was frosted glass from the massage room to the hallway.
I quickly undressed and did my best to squeeze myself into the small (but tall) tub. I relaxed and was hoping that the herbs would help my muscles. Then after 20 minutes, the woman came into the room. She pointed for me to get out and go to the massage table. I was embarrassed because I was naked in the tub.
I asked her to leave so I could undress, but she wasn’t budging. I motioned for her to leave, and she stepped into the other room (on the other side of the frosted glass). I got out, and as I dried off, she came back into the room. Frustrated, I tried to cover myself up. She pointed to the massage table, and I kept asking if I should put my clothes on.
I was very unclear if I should be dressed or not, so I put my underwear on and climbed on the massage table. The blanket was too tiny to cover most of me, but I did my best. I was on my back like the woman instructed me. She was behind my head and rubbing my shoulders. Then she started to rub my forehead and face.
The pressure the woman used on my forehead was starting to really bother me. I tried my best not to complain and figured she’d move on soon. Except she didn’t. Over and over, she squeezed my forehead. I couldn’t take it anymore and instinctively moved my head, waved my hands, and said, “Enough.” She moved back to massaging my shoulders, but it was so forceful, it was painful. Then she was back to the forehead. I had to push her away again.
As the woman painfully pressed into my shoulders, she typed something into her phone on Google translate and showed it to me. Google didn’t translate well, and it said something about a man doing it. She also pointed to the door. Confused, I shrugged my shoulders. She kept showing it to me, and I said I didn’t want a man doing the massage.
The woman didn’t give up. She kept speaking Vietnamese to me and I’d speak English to her. She stopped messaging again to show me her next Google translate. It was something about “a woman massaged her son.” I said I didn’t understand and typed that into Google translate.
The woman moved around, punching my arms and legs. Then she squeezed my right knee so hard that I immediately pulled it away in pain. I tried telling her, “not so hard.” I made a face of pain, hoping to convey that she was pressing too hard. I was baffled about how a woman so small could have such a tight grip and cause so much pain.
Next, the woman had me turn on my stomach so she could massage my back. It was better, but she still kept talking to me in Vietnamese and I’d explain that I couldn’t understand her. All of a sudden, she left the room. She came back with Opi who was also mostly naked. Opi said, “She wants to know if you think it’s too hard.” Trying to cover myself up, I said, “Yes! It’s too hard.” Opi translated and left the room.
Towards the end of the massage, the petite woman started walking on my back. She held a pole on the ceiling and walked all over me, including the back of my legs and arms. While she was very petite and had soft feet, it was still painful! I couldn’t wait for the massage to be over. Then the woman tried to crack my back and I’m not very flexible. She moved my body all around. Once that was complete, the massage was over. The woman breathed heavily and we laughed at the ridiculous situation we were in. She must have thought I was a giant.
I got dressed and met everyone in the lobby. I explained to them that I had the worst massage of my life, how much it hurt, and that we could not communicate. Ben and Berry said their couples’ massage hurt as well. We drove back to the hostel, and I was very dramatic in showing how the woman tried to move me around, walked on me, and punched me. We all laughed about it.
Ben and Berry had to catch their bus, so we said our goodbyes. We hoped to meet up again when we were in the middle of Vietnam. It was hard saying goodbye. They are such good people, and I really enjoyed their company. I felt better knowing I’d probably see them in a week or so.
Back at the hostel, Opi and I sat on the couch in the lobby and talked about his business. Those of us on the tour all agreed to write him five-star reviews because we all had such an incredible experience. We warned Opi that his business would continue to grow because he does a great job at creating a local experience and is such a fun guy to be around. We cautioned him not to grow too fast, or the quality of his tours might suffer.
I told Opi that I had difficulty finding his company on Trip Advisor because it wasn’t showing a “motorbike” tour. We searched through the app together to find ways to change the headings. It listed “hop-on/hop-off,” and I showed a picture of a bus that is a traditional hop-on/hop-off bus and told him that he should remove it from his heading because it might be confusing people. I also proofread his listing to correct some grammatical errors.
Opi and I had a nice time talking about business, how to succeed, and our future plans. Opi told me that I did a good job driving, and he seemed proud of me. He said, “When I was first showing you the bike, your hands were shaking, and I was worried. My friends noticed it too. But then you took off and were able to do it.” I laughed because I didn’t realize my hands were shaking.
It was time for dinner, and my night bus wouldn’t be arriving for a while, so I walked down the street and across a bridge. I found a small restaurant and looked at the sign. I saw the same fried rice and egg that I had for lunch. I enjoyed it so much that I bought it again. I asked the woman how much it cost. She didn’t speak much English, so she typed the price on her calculator on her cell phone and showed it to me. That was a frequent tactic that locals used to show the price. They knew the numbers but didn’t know how to pronounce them. It was a successful way to communicate.
I walked back to the hostel and Opi and Eddie (the other tour guide) were eating in the kitchen. I joined them and we had a shot of happy water. Opi had arranged for my VIP night bus to take me back south and it would be arriving soon.
I had such a great time with them. Even though I couldn’t talk to Eddie much because he didn’t speak English, his actions told me all I needed to know. He was kind. He was driving behind me on the last day and stopped to pick up my chapstick when he saw that it fell out of my backpack. I was grateful that he grabbed it. When it started raining, and it was foggy outside, he pulled up next to me and switched my headlights on. He had a caring and kind soul, and I appreciated that.
All of a sudden, the VIP bus arrived early, and I had to grab my bags and get on before they left. Opi helped get my bags to the driver. Then Eddie came to the living room with shots of happy water. We all cheered, clinked our glasses, and took the shot. We hugged goodbye, and Opi walked me outside to the bus. We hugged again and wished each other well and to stay in touch. I was going to miss Opi – his positive spirit, the good conversations, the goofiness, and friendship.
I got on the bus, and the driver asked me to take off my shoes and put them in a plastic bag, so I did. There was one aisle with pods on both sides and two floors. The pods had a reclining padded seat, a small TV, a water bottle and snack, a curtain to the outside and to give privacy to the inside, and a blanket. I was thrilled to have this bus instead of the horrible sleeper bus I traveled in on my way there. This bus only cost about $5.00 more and was definitely worth it. The man instructed me to climb the ladder into the top bunk in the second row.
I laid down and curled up under my blanket. I thought about my time on the Ha Giang Loop. It was incredible. The scenery was magnificent, the motorbike was an adventure, the locals were hospitable, and the people on my tour was a blast! We all became fast friends and bonded really well. Opi created a family-like experience, put safety as a top priority, and tended to all of our needs. I was happy that I chose that tour. As I look back on the month I spent in Vietnam; this tour was definitely the highlight. It was exhilarating, beautiful, and just so much fun! When people ask me what I loved most about Vietnam, I always tell them about this tour and how the Ha Giang Loop should not be missed.
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Post Edited By: Mandy Strider