Day 268: American Giant

After sleeping for three hours in my last-minute hotel in Ninh Binh, I woke up at 11:30 am. I had a headache and felt rundown. The older that I get, the more overnight busses and planes wear on me. I took some Excedrin and searched online for things to do. I only had a day to explore before I continued south. I couldn’t find much to do, so I went to the hotel lobby to ask for recommendations. 

This was a nice hotel, much nicer than the places I had been staying. I asked the women what I should do since I only had the day to explore. Unfortunately, they didn’t speak much English and couldn’t give me tips other than to explore a park down the road. 

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I started walking in the direction of the park, but Apple maps on my iPhone was terrible. I consistently ran into problems using it in Southeast Asia. I downloaded Google Maps and have used it ever since. It understood the names of places and did a much more accurate job of navigating. 

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I stopped at a restaurant that I found online. The menu showed cigarettes as an option, which I passed on. After eating my food, I almost walked out without paying. The restaurants in Vietnam let you enjoy your meal and take as much time as you want. They don’t hound you to pay like in the U.S. They give you the bill when you ask for it. I know servers in the U.S. are mostly trying to be polite by getting the bill to you quickly, but if often comes across as, “You’re done, please leave.” I liked that the culture in Vietnam didn’t seem as rushed. 

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I continued walking into the city. The gray sky loomed above, but I was grateful it wasn’t raining. As I got closer to the park, I couldn’t help but notice a group of women on motorbikes leaving an electronics store. They all had huge flat-screen TV’s strapped to the back of their motorbikes! The TV’s were at least 42” and only three straps held the box containing the TV to the backseat. About one to two feet of the TV box hung off the back. The delivery women confidently drove away. I can’t even imagine such a thing being allowed in the U.S. 

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As I approached the park, I noticed the tall concrete wall around it. I headed towards one of the openings, but was stopped by a group of middle-aged women. They were standing at a street food vendor and one woman walked over to me, stood next to my arm, put her hand from the top of her head to my arm (which was just above my elbow). She and her friends laughed at the difference in our heights. 

I was getting pretty used to this in Vietnam. Being 6’1”, I am much taller than the average Vietnamese. As I walked away, a group of young guys sitting at a table asked me if I’d like to join them and smoke their bongs. I smiled, but declined their offer and continued into the park. 

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The park was a large rectangle with a wide walkway and a fountain in the middle. It was beautiful and well-cared for. I strolled along the path and watched a group of people on mats doing yoga and a woman riding a bicycle with her young daughter sitting on the back. It was picturesque and very relaxed. 

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As I kept walking, I couldn’t help but notice the people staring at me. It was so obvious that men riding their bicycles turned their entire head as they passed on the other side. I was starting to feel self-conscious and realized I must really stand out. There weren’t any tourists there and this was clearly more of a local hangout. 

Then a girl around eight years old skipped past me with a phone in a selfie stick. Once she passed me, she paused, trying to take a selfie with me behind her. I decided to just accept my fate. I leaned into the selfie, smiled, and waved as the girl skipped back to her mom. 

This must be what famous people experience. I walked through the park like a celebrity. Often times I try to just go unnoticed, but it’s impossible when you’re a female my height. I laughed and thought, “Maybe I’m trending on social media in Vietnam as #AmericanGiant.” 

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There were some beautiful, traditional Vietnamese buildings in the park. As I headed out of the park, I came across an abandoned Ferris wheel. There was a young guy and girl talking and being playful. The old, rusty cars looked like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie. 

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Once I left the park, I walked around town while searching online for things to do. I found the Mia Cave viewpoint, so I ordered a Grab to drive me there. About 15 minutes later, we arrived at the entrance. I paid the $100,000 dong ($4.38 USD) fee and walked down the path. I could see the huge rock formation in the distance. There was a path lined with shopping booths and restaurants that led to the cave and the stairs to the viewpoint. 

I arrived at the cave and nobody was going inside. I’ve seen a lot of caves and I didn’t want to miss the viewpoint before it got dark, so I started climbing the stone steps. A stone dragon sat on the railing at the beginning, but then the stairs got more and more narrow. There were a lot of Chinese and European tourists, and a lot more stairs. 

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I was wearing jeans and a short-sleeve shirt and I wrapped my jacket around the strap of my purse. I was starting to sweat and needed to take breaks from time to time to catch my breath. My right knee was also hurting with the incline. I made it to the mid-way point and had two options: right or left. I chose the path to my right and as I ascended, the steps were more uneven and narrow. 

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The views were incredible! Stopping to catch my breath was just fine with me because I took the time to enjoy the scenery. When I finally reached the top of the rock, there were several people waiting to take a picture with the little pillar on the peak. It was fairly dangerous, but they wanted their Instagram shot. I watched as a guy gazed off into the distance for his picture. Next, a group of girls in brightly colored dresses each made their way to the pillar, one by one. 

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One girl laid down a silk wrap underneath her, laid out, and stared into the distance like a model. I was annoyed. Who climbs all those stairs in those outfits just to get a staged picture? I took my quick selfie with my hair pulled back and moved along. I wasn’t about to wait in line for a phony picture. 

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From where I stood, I could see below to rice fields and on the other side, I could see the stairs that I climbed and the stairs that I would need to climb next to get to the other viewpoint. The rock stairs looked really cool as they hugged the giant rock formation. I believe the area is where they filmed one of the King Kong movies. 

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Before I climbed back down, a guy asked if I wanted my picture taken and I said sure. I got a proper picture and started the descent.

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After I made it back to the junction, I started the climb on the other rock formation. At the top was a small gazebo where people were resting. There was also a dragon at the very top, but it required walking on very steep, sharp rocks on a very narrow path.

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 Of course, people were up there to take their perfect photo. I climbed over to the dragon just to see it, but didn’t want to go the extra few feet just to get a picture with the head of the dragon. It was too dangerous and I’ve read too many stories of people dying around the world because they made risky moves to get a photo. I took the pictures I could easily get and started the climb down. 

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It was only 70° F (21° C), but there was 93% humidity. I felt gross and sweaty in my jeans.

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When I arrived at the bottom, it was almost dark outside. Most people were gone and it was eerie as I walked around a mostly dried up lake with old swan boats abandoned in the mud. 

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I walked on the path, but the shops and restaurants were all closed now. It was only 6:15 pm. When I got back to the entrance, there weren’t any taxis waiting like I had seen when I arrived. I ordered a Grab and the driver messaged me asking if I could walk down the road and meet him there. I was already exhausted, but started walking. I ended up walking for 15 minutes down the dark, bumpy, dirt road where the occasional house stood. 

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When I finally made it to the main road, the driver told me why he asked me to walk. He didn’t speak a lot of English, but it was enough for us to communicate. He explained that Grab has been in Vietnam for two years and the taxi drivers hate them. The location I was at usually has taxi drivers waiting for passengers and they often harass him. They’ve yelled, “F*ck you!” and “I’ll kill you!” while approaching and intimidating him. He’s called the police several times, but they won’t do anything about it. 

I explained to the driver that there weren’t any taxis there, but I understood his problem. I’ve heard that from other Grab drivers. We both agreed that Grab is much more economical and efficient. Taxi drivers drive around looking for business or just sit there waiting for a passenger. That is a waste of time and gas. Technology has made this more efficient. The driver also pointed out that in the past, taxi drivers needed to know the streets and addresses, but with technology, anybody can use GPS guidance to drive a passenger anywhere.

That’s the nice thing about capitalism – it provides opportunity for better products and better services. There is an incentive for companies to compete. Anytime I can use Grab/Uber/Lyft, I use them over a taxi. Their service and price can’t be beat. I love that I can communicate through text with my driver (I believe that Grab translates for each of us), I can see on the GPS where the driver is, I can ensure the driver takes the best route, payment can be done through the app, and I know the price up-front. 

I was dropped off at my hotel and needed dinner. I found a highly rated place on TripAdvisor and walked across the river and down the street for 20 minutes. I was tired of walking, but didn’t have many options nearby. The restaurant was lively and delicious, but is designed for groups. I had to order appetizers instead of the shared meals. 

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On my walk back, I walked through a neighborhood. It was dark and quiet, so I made sure to stay aware of my surroundings. I passed a young girl and her mom and they laughed at me. Confused, I just kept walking. 

Back at the hotel, I worked on my blog and then researched ways to get to Hue, my next destination. I was having a difficult time and finally found a morning train, but in order to book online you have to book the day before and it was now 12:15 am. I called the front desk to ask what time breakfast was and if they could help book a train. The guy who answered didn’t speak any English so we sat on the phone in silence when we realized we couldn’t understand each other. Then he hung up. 

A few minutes later, the man knocked on my door. I stood there in my pajamas and used Google translate to ask what time breakfast ended and he wrote back, 9:00 am. I didn’t bother asking about the train and went to bed. 

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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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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