Days 267-268: Travel Woes

I left Ha Giang after completing a four-day motorbike tour of the mountains in the north of Vietnam. The bus ride from Hanoi to Ha Giang was awful because it was their standard sleeper bus, which is too small for anybody over 5’5”. I booked the overnight VIP bus to return to Hanoi and it was much nicer. There was one aisle with two double-decker rows of little cubbies that had curtains for privacy. I was seated on the top bunk in the second row. I was still too tall to lay completely flat, but it was manageable. The seat reclined so much that I was pretty much lying down. 

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I looked around and noticed only one curtain was closed, so it seemed there was only one other passenger. The bus driver stopped at a hotel and a European man and woman in their late 20s got on and were assigned seats in the back. Then we were off. It would take about six to seven hours to get to Hanoi and I was exhausted from the motorbike tour. I took some notes on my phone and then tried to fall asleep. 

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I was very nervous because the road was so windy. Since I was seated on the top deck of the bus, I was afraid that we’d tip over. Every bump and turn made me alert. After two hours of driving, I woke up because I had to pee. Melana had warned me that when she took the bus, they didn’t stop to use the restroom the entire drive. The hours leading up to getting on the bus, I tried to drink little water. Eventually, I got thirsty and drank some water before boarding. The bus driver showed up early, which didn’t help. 

For the next 30 minutes, I was in a lot of pain as I tried not to pee. Every bump made me squirm. I couldn’t sleep and I laid there realizing that there was no way I could last another four hours. The bus was in the middle of nowhere on a mountain. I remembered that Melana said she asked her bus driver to stop and he pulled over so she could go in the bushes. This was the VIP bus afterall, not the public bus. Surely, he’d stop for me. 

I climbed down the ladder and walked down the aisle to the driver. While crossing my legs, I explained that I had to pee and asked if he’d stop. He said something in Vietnamese and I couldn’t understand him. I stood there as we passed through a small town. It was almost midnight, so everything was closed. I stood there next to the driver for five minutes because I couldn’t go back to my cubby. 

After we passed the town, there was road construction. Because the lane was being redirected, there was some traffic. There was nowhere for the driver to pull over because we were on the side of a mountain. Even if he did, there were cars around. I just stood there and watched the rain fall, illuminated by the headlights. 

All of sudden, the construction ended and cars started to pass the bus again. The driver stopped the bus, opened the door, and quickly pointed for me to get out. I asked, “Here?” The driver sternly pointed to the open door. We didn’t have much time since he was still on the street in the middle of the only lane going our direction. 

I turned back to my cubby to get my shoes, but the man pointed to some slip-on shoes. I may not speak Veitnamese, but I could understand that he was saying: “Hurry up, I’m stopped on the road.” I put on the shoes and stepped out into the light rain. Then I realized there was a concrete ditch for water to drain down the mountain and next to that was the side of a mountain and there was no way to climb it. I looked across the street and lights from the bus lit up the edge of the mountain on that side. I’d have to cross the dangerous road on the side of the mountain, in the rain, and in the dark. There weren’t even enough bushes to hide in on the other side. I was also afraid that the driver would leave me. 

There were windows on the sides of the bus with curtains that the passengers could choose to open, so peeing on the side was out of the question. I quickly decided that I’d have to pee behind the bus. The few other passengers were asleep in their cubbies with their curtains closed, so I hoped they couldn’t see me in the back. I was afraid that the driver would be able to see me so I squatted in the middle of the bus, hoping his mirrors wouldn’t be able to see that angle. I held on to the bumper and squatted. The red lights from the bus glowed as I kept my eye on the road, just in case a car came driving up. I thought, “The bus driver better not take off. I don’t even have my purse on me!”

Once I was finished, I ran back to the bus, got inside, took the shoes off, and climbed into my cubby. The driver started to drive again and I was shocked that a car didn’t pull up on either side of the road. I felt so relieved now that the pain was gone. I laughed to myself, “You gotta do what you gotta do.” Then 40 minutes later, the bus stopped at a market for a 15-minute break. I was still happy that I chose to go when I did. I could not have waited another 40 minutes. 

I got off the bus and used the restroom, just in case. I got back on the bus and tried my best to sleep. I was occasionally successful, but woke up constantly. I closed my window curtain and it helped block out street lights. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that the bus was going to crash while I was asleep. 

Finally at 3:00 am we arrived in Hanoi. I didn’t think we were supposed to arrive that early. The driver parked in a bus terminal parking lot and turned off the engine. Nobody was getting out of the bus, except the driver and he didn’t seem concerned. I figured he was letting us all sleep, which is what I read online. I fell back asleep, but at 4:00 am, a man walked over to my cubby, opened the curtain, and pointed for me to get off the bus. I grabbed my purse and shoes and got off. The French couple in the back were also instructed to get off the bus. The local Vietnamese passenger was allowed to sleep. 

We were all instructed to get into a white van as three men moved our luggage over to it. I was confused and tried asking where we were going, but they didn’t speak English. One man was getting angry that I wouldn’t get inside and kept pointing for me to get in. Body language is an international language. Finally, one man spoke a little bit of English and said we were going to the office to get tickets to Ninh Bin (my destination). 

I got into the van and the French couple told me that they were frustrated that it wasn’t clear what was happening. They were under the impression that we would be allowed to sleep until at least 6:00 am.  After seven minutes of driving, the driver stopped on a random street. The French couple’s hotel was just around the corner, so they walked in that direction. The driver took my luggage out and said the taxi drivers nearby could help me. 

The driver of the van drove away and I was stuck with my luggage on the side of a road in the dark at 4:00 am. The taxi drivers walked over and told me they could take me to the bus station and the price would include the bus to Ninh Binh. One guy said he’d charge me $200,000 dong ($8.60 USD) and another said $100,000 dong ($4.30). I asked questions; why do I need the bus station? What will I take from there? What time does the bus leave? One driver kept saying I needed to get to the bus station for $100,000 dong, but then mentioned the meter. 

I never know if taxi drivers are trying to rip me off, so I did what I usually do – I opened the Grab app, which is like Uber. It gave an estimated price of $100,00 dong, so I agreed to the taxi since he was right there. Once I got into the taxi, I said, “So $100,000?” He replied, “Meter.” I know it’s often a scam when the drivers insist on the meter because they might take a longer route, or they might have messed with the meter. I pushed back, “If you’re saying meter, I’ll get out and order a Grab.” I put my hand on the door handle. He sighed, “Ok, $100,000.”

We arrived at the bus station 15 minutes later and there were three busses lined up next to each other. This wasn’t the main station and the busses were in very bad condition. The taxi driver put me in touch with the driver and he told me to get on. I asked if it was going to Ninh Binh and he said it was. 

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We waited for 20 minutes for others to get on the bus and it was now almost 5:00 am. My luggage was in the main cabin near the door and I was just a couple of rows back. The other busses left and I was frustrated that we just sat there. I searched on 12goasia (a website for booking busses and trains around Asia) for bus tickets and timelines. The earliest bus left at 6:30 am and cost $275,000 dong ($11.88 USD). Great, I was on some sort of knock-off bus. 

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A man was standing in the doorway letting passengers in. The door was still open and he was still standing in it while the bus started driving away. I kept thinking, “What is going on?”  It would take about two hours to get to Ninh Binh. I was so tired and delirious from lack of sleep that I couldn’t keep my eyes open. 

The bus would stop on the side of the road and pick up random people. The man in the doorway would take their money, throw their bags down near my luggage, and the customer would sit down. We stopped so much, that the bus filled up and the bags were practically blocking the door. I now had a passenger next to me. I don’t trust strangers, so I kept my purse on my lap with my arms around it. I kept nodding off though because my body was shutting down. I would suddenly wake up when I realized I fell asleep. I was paranoid that someone would steal from me. 

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Around 7:00 am, the man in the doorway shook me awake and pointed for me to get out. I asked, “Are we in Ninh Binh?” He said, “Ninh Binh.” I was the only one to get off the bus. I grabbed my luggage and stepped off the bus only to realize that they literally dropped me on the side of the road. This was not a bus station or stop. 

I felt delirious from sleep deprivation. I looked around and saw a beautiful, large hotel. I rolled my suitcase across the wet parking lot and into the lobby. The floor was marble, the ceiling was high, and it was a lot fancier than the hotels I had been staying in. I walked to the reception desk and asked if they had any rooms available that would allow me to check in right away. 

The woman looked through her computer and said the only room available for that early of a check-in would be their VIP room for $950,000 dong. I looked panicked and the woman said they usually charge extra for such an early check-in, but let me have the VIP room for no extra charge. I did the conversion on my phone and it was $41 USD. I agreed to the rate and got the room key. 

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My huge room was on the top floor and had marble floors and a plush bed that I just wanted to jump into. I resisted the urge and showered first. By 8:30 am, I closed the room-darkening curtains and jumped into that bed. I curled up in the soft comforter and instantly fell asleep. I slept for the next three hours. Sometimes traveling on the fly can be a bit crazy, but thankfully it’s always worked out in the end (so far). 

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider

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Day 267: Driving a Motorbike in the Rain

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 travellers 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.

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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.”

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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.

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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. Very large spider webs perched on top of bushes and looked like floating clouds among the foliage.

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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.

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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 in a mysterious way. 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 raincover 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 the 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 as to 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 women 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 is going to 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 a hard time finding his company on Trip Advisor because it wasn’t showing “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 awhile, 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 Enlgish, 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.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider

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Day 266: The Chinese Border

After we said goodbye to Erik and Melana, we continued our trek through the mountains in northern Vietnam. Ben and Berry rode on the back of the bike of two guides and I continued to drive my own bike. It was colder that day, 48°F (8°C), so I put my coat on instead of my wind jacket. It helped, but the wind still made its way through and made me feel a little cold.

Opi told me I was one of the few people who came prepared for cold temperatures. He said most people on his tour think it’s always hot in Vietnam and they only have shorts and t-shirts. I explained that a friend who had been to Vietnam in February told me it was cold in the north (especially the mountains) and warm in the south. Since I knew I was going to be there in March, I prepared for both warm and cold weather. I was happy that I had my extra luggage that day.

The mountains seemed to go on forever. They were steep, sharp, and unlike any mountains I had seen before. They were lush and beautiful. Everytime we passed people, they waved and smiled. Sometimes the kids would try to high-five us as we drove by.

We were headed to the border with China and as we got closer, I saw a few disturbing sights. When we turned a corner, I saw a cat that had been tortured. His head was up against a rock with a stick sticking out of his head. Then, a motorbike going the opposite direction of us had a crate attached to the back that was full of puppies. When we stopped at the border, I asked Opi, “Were the puppies in the back of that crate for people to sell and eat?” Opi looked sad and said, “Yes. Some small villages in China still eat dog and they trade with some villages in the north of Vietnam. It’s illegal in Vietnam, but because they’re close to the border, it still happens.”

Berry and I were on the verge of tears. She thought the cat was just laying on the rock until we explained that it had been tortured. We agreed that it was becoming a sad day in Vietnam.

We parked our motorbikes and walked towards the border. There was a fence and a large opening, but there wasn’t anybody guarding it. Warning signs of landmines were posted and Opi told us that some landmines are still buried from the wars with China.

He told us not to step even a foot across the border because the Chinese are known to hide out and if someone steps across, they’ll arrest them. At the time, China was holding several American and Candian tourists, accusing them of being spies because of the trade war.

We took pictures at the landmarker and I chose not to cross the border. Berry is originally from China and has dual citizenship. We saw merchants on the other side with items they were selling in a van. It was in the middle of nowhere, but I guess they were there to trade with Vietnam. Berry confidently walked across the border and over to the van. After talking to them for five minutes, she came back and said they were there selling items they had made.

We continued driving and Opi took us to a gazebo. First, we had to drive through a small village and then went on a very small concrete path that had very little guard rails. I definitely wouldn’t have known about this area on my own. When we arrived at the parking lot, several flights of stairs took us to the gazebo overlooking the valley below. We were the only people around.

Opi pointed out the mountain across from us and the river below that separated the two mountains. He said across the river was China. Just then, Berry’s phone welcomed her to China, thinking she was there because we were so close. Her phone changed to a Chinesse network and she said, “Let’s test it.” She tried to pull up Facebook, Instagram, and Google and all three were blocked.

I couldn’t believe it. I always heard things are restricted in China, but I’ve never actually experienced it. I asked why they are restricted and Berry explained it’s because the government doesn’t want people influenced. They have similar websites, but they’re regulated by the government. I felt very grateful to live in the U.S. where freedom of speech is expected (even though it’s often under attack).

We continued driving and passed kids walking with garden tools. They were guiding some cows and goats. The oldest kid who appeared to be around nine years old held a beer in his hand. Berry pointed it out and it just added to our list of sad sights that day.

We took pictures and enjoyed the scenery. However, as we drove through the small town to get back to the main road, we saw stray dogs that were in poor health. We also saw a woman walking a pig on a leash. It was so different than the U.S. where dogs are on leashes and pigs are in pens.

For lunch, we stopped at a restaurant on the side of the mountain. Ben broke out his drone and we tried over and over to get a shot with all of us jumping at the same time. We failed because of the delay of the camera, but we had a fun time trying.

Our next stop was the King’s Palace. The palace is on display for tourists and there were tour busses in the parking lot. The palace was owned by a Hmong King who made 20 tons of opium each year. The palace was protected from bombs by the mountain. In 2004, they opened it to the public. Some of the extended family members still live nearby. It took seven years to build and it looked like places I’ve seen in movies. It was worn and empty, but had several square courtyards inside without roofs.

The king had three wives, but the second wife was never pictured because she only birthed girls. We walked through all the rooms and saw guns on display that people could grab. Opi picked one up and showed us how they used the holes to fire from. The doorways were so short that I had to duck.

We continued our drive and stopped at a lookout point with an incredible view of the road that snakes its way through and around the mountain. We were on the main road where small tour busses go, so there was a parking lot there. Usually we just pulled to the side of the road to take pictures because most of the time the roads weren’t that busy.

As we took pictures, a boy who appeared to be around eight years old grabbed a cigarette from Opi. Opi just stared at the kid in surprise and watched as the kid lit the cigarette and started smoking. The boy was wearing extremely worn out, dirty clothes and his body was covered in dirt. He casually sat on the half wall smoking and sharing the cigarette with some younger boys.

Then we saw young girls who also appeared to be around eight years old, but they were dressed in beautiful, clean clothes. They were wearing way too much makeup and held flowers that they were trying to sell. The girls were beautiful.

Opi told us not to give the kids any money because they stop going to school and do this instead. Tourists will stop and take pictures of them and in return they’ll give them money or candy. They think they’re helping, but it is why the parents have their kids do this instead of going to school. They can make more money for the family from tourists. Opi told us that in the peak season, they can make $45 USD a day. The average salary in Vietnam is $200-$250 USD per month.

The boy smoking pulled out a kitkat and ate it as he watched for tour buses. We asked Opi if we could take pictures and he said we could. We just shouldn’t give them anything. All of a sudden, a tour bus was coming up the windy road. The kids all got so excited, but the bus kept driving by and the kids got bummed out.

It was heartbreaking. These kids didn’t know any better and their parents were incentivized to have their kids do this. In Thailand, their theory was not to give money to homeless because it teaches bad behaviors. They don’t have many homeless people, so maybe their theory works. It saddened me to think that westerners were creating these behaviors, thinking they were helping.

We drove down the windy road and it almost made me dizzy from going left to right over and over again. It started to get foggy and colder. We stopped briefly for pictures and Opi and Eddie looked freezing and uncomfortable.

We made a stop in a small town for some coffee and yogurt with fruit. It was always nice to take a quick break.

By the time we arrived at our homestay, it was 6:30 pm and it was almost dark. This time, there were other travellers staying there too. Ben and Berry had a room to themselves and I was assigned a mat in the large room that was shared. They had a curtain separating the large room into smaller rooms and had doors to the balcony that were separated, so it felt like my own room. That is until I could hear others next to me talking. They were speaking Dutch, so I couldn’t understand them. My little room had three mattresses and mosquito nets. The mattress and the bathrooms were pretty nice.

For dinner, we met in a downstairs room that was indoors. There wasn’t any heat though, so it felt freezing in there. I kept my coat on until enough happy water (rice wine) warmed me up. The family who owned the house was a young couple with a little girl around four years old. There were also some older women and their husbands who helped cook and clean. We all ate as one big family.

Across from the dinner table were three travellers with another group of guides. They were from Holland and were on day one of the four-day tour. Our guides all knew each other, so they chatted. The Holland travellers (husband, wife, and friend) were in their early to mid-20s, and all had blonde hair. All three of them((Jelle, Malou, and Hanna) were in medical school and had some time off. They were spending five weeks in Vietnam on holiday. Jelle was driving his own bike, but Malou and Hanna were riding on the back of bikes.

We all agreed that the roads were crazy and bumpy. Ben, Berry, and I told them what to expect since they were only on day one. They were going the opposite direction that we were going. We all had such a fun time talking, eating, and drinking happy water. The happy water was always in a reused water bottle and it flowed freely into our little shot glasses. Ben, Berry, and I warned the Holland travellers about the happy water and how much they’d end up drinking. We started enjoying the happy water so much that we’d call regular water “sad water.”

After dinner, the generous hosts surprised Malou with a birthday cake. I was thrilled! Berry turned to me and laughed, “You finally get your cake!” After enjoying the delicious cake, the guides busted out their karaoke microphone. There was an app on their phones that connected the wireless microphone and amplified the sound.

We all had a blast singing songs and being silly. We realized we needed to have Zing involved in karaoke because he promised us we’d do it and he’d sing “My Heart Will Go On,” but the night before he was too tired. Melana, Erik, and Zing had made it back to Ha Giang and Zing was waiting with them to make sure they made it safely on the night bus. We Facetimed them through Facebook messenger video call and sang the song for them. They sang along while people stared at them on the sidewalk. It was so fun and the perfect way to say goodbye before they boarded their bus.

Berry and I stood up and sung “I Just Wanna Dance with Somebody” by Whitney Huston. We laughed, danced, and had such a fun time. Berry was so fun and sweet that I was really enjoying our friendship. We goofed around and took shots together celebrating our last night together in the North.

The party started to move outside and we asked Opi what he was doing on his phone. He showed us Tik Tok and Ben, Berry, and I all made a funny video with Opi for the social media platform. We weren’t familiar with Tik Tok, so afterwards we asked him about it. It turned out he had a crazy high amount of followers. We said, “Wait, so you’re famous?” He humbly laughed it off, but we weren’t surprised because Opi is a funny, creative guy.

It was cold outside and getting late. I took a shower and went to bed before I ended up with a hangover. I went to bed with a smile on my face. I loved that people from so many different cultures could be comfortable around each other and have so much fun together. It’s moments like this that make me realize why I love traveling.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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