Day 272 – No Glitter. No Party: My Introduction to Vietnamese Street Food

After spending a few days in Hue, Vietnam, I continued south to Da Nang. I had arranged for a van company to take me on the two and a half hour drive. At 11:00 am, I received a phone call from the driver, but he didn’t speak English. To communicate, he hung up and texted me instead to let me know that he was outside of my Airbnb.

I walked outside to find a small SUV with two other people inside. My Airbnb hosts helped the driver load my bags in the back. After picking up another single woman, we arrived at a hotel. We were all instructed to get out so we could transfer to a van. While we waited for two more people, they asked me to sign an itinerary that was in Vietnamese. I asked what I was signing, but the language barrier made it impossible for me to know what it said. A young couple on the trip helped to translate, so I signed.

The VIP van had two single seats in the front, two in the middle, and three spaces in the back row that were all on the same seat. They instructed me to get in the very back corner. I asked if I could just have a seat in the middle because I’m so tall. They wouldn’t budge because the seats were assigned in the order of our bookings and I booked last. 

Frustrated, I got in the back seat with two tall europeans next to me. The shorter locals were all in the larger seats that recline. The man in front of me reclined, making it impossible for me to get some writing done. We left 30 minutes late and the ride was so bumpy that I started to get car-sick. I was annoyed and grumpy by the service in Vietnam. 

When we arrived in Da Nang, the driver stopped on a random street. He asked us to get out because apparently this was our drop-off place. I tried to order a Grab, but the location wasn’t registering correctly, so I had to cancel it and order a new one. I stood on the sidewalk with my luggage and fumbled with my phone. Just then, the young couple from the van (who helped translate earlier about the seats) asked me if I needed help. 

The guy was on a motorbike and his girlfriend was on the back. I explained I was having difficulty with my Grab driver. The guy used my phone and called the driver to tell him where I was located. They waited with me until the driver arrived and then drove away. They restored my faith in humanity. 

The heat in Da Nang was more bearable than Hue: 97 °F (36 °C) vs. 105 °F (40 °C) in Hue. I arrived at Dylan Hotel Da Nang that I booked on Orbitz and was able to check-in and drop off my bags. The modern hotel had 30+ floors. My room had two double beds, a TV, a desk, and a beautiful bathroom. I was elated to have a shower that had a glass barrier separating the shower from the toilet. 

The rooftop on the hotel had a bar on one side and a pool on the other. After eating some lunch at the empty rooftop bar, I took a nap in the plush bed because I wasn’t feeling very good.

Later, I went to the (still empty) bar to watch the sunset and I had widespread views of the city. The city was much more modern than what I had seen in the northern part of Vietnam. 

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For dinner, I signed up for a street food tour with Exploring DaNang Food Tour. I was the only person signed up that day, so instead of paying $35, I paid $50 so it wouldn’t be cancelled. It would also give me a personalized tour. At 6:00 pm, Diep drove up to my hotel on her motorbike. She was 27 years old, about 5’6”, had straight hair pulled back into a ponytail, and was wearing blue pants with two white stripes on the sides. The sparkly black-brownish shirt that she was wearing said, “No glitter No party.” She was spunky and beautiful.

Diep told me to hop on the back of her motorbike so we could drive to the city center (my hotel was near the beach). I cautiously climbed on the back of the bike and tried to make sure she had enough room. I put my legs on the two small posts sticking out on the sides. I was careful not to let my leg hit the hot exhaust pipe. 

We crossed over a bridge to the city center. I looked to the side and saw a river and a bigger bridge with a giant dragon along it. Riding on the back of the motorbike was great! The cool breeze felt refreshing in the night air. The city seemed cleaner and better-kept than what I had seen in Vietnam. The streets were newer and wider too. Diep told me that the city has grown tremendously in the last five years. They opened the Golden Bridge just outside of Da Nang at Ba Na Hills (it’s the famous bridge with hands holding it up) and it’s brought in a lot more tourism. 

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Diep parked at a market and rushed inside before they closed. We zipped through stalls until we arrived at the one she wanted. She bought me a green juice and a cup with jellies and sugary green beans. I was pleasantly surprised by how good it tasted. I ate the chunks and drank the juice, but Diep warned, “Don’t feel like you need to finish everything. We’ll eat a lot tonight. For some reason, Americans always feel bad wasting food, but trust me, you won’t be able to try everything if you finish all of them.”

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Diep and I chatted as we stood near the stall. She told me that the average salary in Vietnam is $200 USD/month, which isn’t a lot of money. Most of the businesses are run by family members. They have to pay the government to rent the space for a market stall and eventually they’ll pass the business on to other members of their families.

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The market was going to close so we continued to our next destination. During the walk through the streets, Diep told me that Vietnamese eat small snacks throughout the day, which mostly consists of street food. For dinner, they are expected to go home to have dinner with their family. 

We arrived at a street cart where an 80-year-old woman was making Banh Mi Que (Vietnamese baguette with pork liver, chili jam, and dry onion). Diep explained that the woman has been serving these from that food cart for more than 30 years. It was really delicious! 

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As I ate, Diep told me about herself. She attended University to study accounting and she works for the government doing just that during the day. She doesn’t care for it very much and she only makes $150 USD/month working full-time. She taught herself English in three months by watching YouTube videos. She was the second person that I met in Vietnam who told me they learned English in three months from YouTube. Both of them spoke English very well and I was curious as to what videos these were. It also made me realize just how much the American school system is failing us. I took two years of Spanish in high school and two semesters at University, and have never been bi-lingual. 

Diep started to hang out with expats in the area so that she could work on her English. In return for their help, she would take them around to street vendors and show them which foods to eat and how to eat them. One day, someone told her that she should be charging for the food tours. She wasn’t sure at first because she thought her English needed improvement, but people encouraged her by assuring her that it was perfectly fine. Diep started doing food tours in the evening after work a year ago and was slowly building up a fantastic profile on TripAdvisor

Our next stop was for some spring rolls in a small sit-down table down an alleyway. Diep told me about life in Vietnam for women. A woman is expected to cook and clean for her husband and his entire family. They often live with their parents even if they’re married. She said, “If you marry a Vietnamese man, you’ll be a slave to his family, especially if he has a lot of brothers.” 

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Diep told me about her aunt who has been married for 15 years to a man who beats her about once a week. She’s beautiful, but puts up with it because it’s so common there. Diep watches as some young women marry, take care of the kids, and work all day while their husband is having an affair. The wife doesn’t know because she’s too busy taking care of everything. Diep has chosen not to marry a Vietnamese man. She said she’s old for not having been married. Instead, she’s decided to focus on her studies and now her business. She told me, “Then my money is my money. I won’t rely on anybody.” 

I told Diep that I was a manager, but quit my job and sold my house so that I could travel. She was impressed that I gave up a good job and a house. She made me feel proud. I loved that two women in very different circumstances and from different countries could be supportive of each other. 

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Diep told me that as a child, people would tell her that she’s dark and wouldn’t play with her. They’d point and say she’s a farm worker. Finally, as an adult, she realized that she was wearing multiple jackets and face masks to cover her skin and that wasn’t a way to live. Now, she’s confident and doesn’t care. 

I told Diep that I noticed a lot of “whitening” soaps and face creams in Thailand and Vietnam. She explained that their culture values being light-skinned and does crazy things like get a nose job for $2,000 to look more Caucasian. Diep said she could be out with a friend who doesn’t have as pretty a face as she has, but because her skin is whiter, she’ll get all the attention from guys. I told Diep that it was ironic that they do that when Caucasion people go to tanning beds to get darker. We agreed, “I guess we always want to be what we’re not.” She is a natural beauty.

Our next stop was a street vendor that served Che Chuoi Nuong, which is a grilled banana dessert served in coconut milk. It was so tasty, I ate the entire bowl! I noticed that the family still had a decent amount of food left and it was getting late. Diep had told me that they always make everything fresh daily. What do they do with the leftovers? Diep explained that the families will eat it because they have big families and lots of people living together. 

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The next stop was Banh Trang Kep, which is Vietnamese rice paper cracker with pate, beef jerky, and quail eggs arranged like slices of pizza. It was so delicious, it was my favorite food on the tour. Diep kept asking me for feedback, but I didn’t have any suggestions. It was a great tour!

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While I ate my slices, Diep told me that she lost one of her three sisters when she was 14 years old. She was very depressed over it. After a year, she realized that’s not what her sister would want. Life is too short and we have to live it in fulfilling ways, like having great conversations with inspiring people! 

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We hopped on to Diep’s motorbike for our next stop: eel at a sit-down restaurant. I was hesitant to try it, but Diep told me the tumeric sauce makes it easier for newbies. She laughed and laughed at my inability to use chopsticks and how I was weirded out by the eel. We were having such a fun time!

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For the finale, we went to a large outdoor restaurant to eat shrimp and BBQ oysters. Diep got me a beer as well and I was so stuffed, I begged her to help me eat the oysters.

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I told Diep that she’s an entrepreneur and she should feel proud of owning a women-led business. She told me that she doesn’t think she’s an entrepreneur because she doesn’t have any employees. I explained to her that she still had a business, was an innovator, and when her business takes off, she’ll hire employees. We even looked up the definition so she could be certain that she is in fact an entrepreneur. She looked proud of her accomplishments. 

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Diep drove me to my hotel and we hugged goodbye. She told me that she was so fortunate to have met me and that we’re now a part of each other’s stories. I gave her another hug. I’m the one who was fortunate to meet such an incredible soul. 

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 48: Tear Inducing Scenery

The Liard River Hot Springs was only a 45-minute drive north from where I was staying at the Northern Rockies Lodge. I drank a protein shake, loaded up my car, and headed to the hot springs.

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When I arrived, I paid a small entrance fee and the guy at the gate told me I would need to park and then walk for about 15 minutes on a boardwalk through the swampy area to get to the springs.

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The area was surrounded by trees and was very beautiful, despite the strong smell of sulfur that emanated from the springs. After changing, I slowly got into the hot springs. The further to the right that I went, the hotter it got. It was quiet and most people weren’t talking. I felt awkward just hanging out alone.

After 15 minutes, I swam near a few people so I could listen in on their conversation. They talked about the fires in Toronto and how it was going to take hours before the redness subsided from their face due to the heat.

After 30 minutes, I was getting too hot so I got out, changed, and walked back to my car. Shortly after leaving the hot springs, I came across buffalo on the side of the road! There must have been more than 20 of them on both sides of the highway, and occasionally crossing the road. The few of us on the road pulled unto the shoulder to take pictures and video. It was slightly raining, but the buffalo didn’t seem to care. They just kept nonchalantly grazing.

I continued north as dark blue clouds rolled in, making the mountains look even more majestic.

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I crossed into the Yukon, which is a different territory than British Columbia. The landscape was so beautiful and so isolated, that tears came to my eyes. I couldn’t believe I was fortunate enough to be here and experience this wondrous place.

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When I arrived at the town of Watson Lake, I saw a forest made entirely out of sign posts. I pulled over and saw thousands of street signs from around the world! It was incredible. The signs were nailed to giant wooden posts standing far above my head.

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In 1942, the town of Watson Lake didn’t exist, but there was a US army camp located there. It was common for the military to put up a sign post indicating the direction of surrounding communities. One day, Private Carl K. Lindley was recovering from an injury at the base and added his hometown sign of Danville, Illinois because he was homesick.

The Sign Post Forest has become world famous and there are now over 72,000 signs. Visitors who didn’t bring their own can buy a piece of wood from the visitor center. I walked through the forest amazed and got excited when I’d see a sign from a place I knew. It was such a neat concept and I had no idea it existed.

I drove to the gas station next door to fill up and to see if I wanted to stay the night in Watson Lake. The gas station was sort of like a truck stop, with a small market and a restaurant attached to it. In the restroom, there was a large orange bucket on the counter filled with condoms. The sign warned of STI’s and said the condoms were free. I thought, “Whoa, looks like I’m in the Yukon now.”

I sat in my car and decided to stay in the next town, Whitehorse. I booked a place on Orbitz that was a B & B but they only offered a very small breakfast. The drive continued to impress me and the fellow travelers became fewer and farther in between. Sometimes I pulled over in one of the look-out areas, and other times I just stopped right on the road, rolled down my window (or quickly stepped out) and took pictures.

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The rain stopped and I passed a coyote on the side of the road. The road winded through the mountains, and lakes just kept appearing. The Yukon was giving British Columbia a run for its money. The dark blue clouds returned, bringing forth more rain. The sun reflected off of a giant lake as it started to set. Everywhere I looked was like a postcard.

It was more than eight hours of driving that day, but I never got bored. People have asked me if I listen to podcasts and wondered how I could tolerate so much driving. If you saw the scenery, you’d understand. It’s breathtaking and peaceful. All I need is my music.

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I successfully arrived at Whitehorse, but was struggling to find the B & B. I called the owner and he explained it’s actually located 30 minutes south of the town, which meant I passed it. As I left town, a rainbow appeared but I was heading into dark storm clouds and it was getting dark.

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Since it was dark and raining, I couldn’t find the small gravel road that would take me up the hill to the small B & B. I called the owner again and he stayed on the phone with me for several minutes until I could find the road.

I drove to the top of the hill and arrived at 10:00 pm. There were a few cars in the gravel lot and I ran inside, trying to avoid the rain and the cold (it dropped to 50 degrees F!). My room key was on the small entrance table, so I grabbed it and walked down the hallway to my room. It had two twin beds and I had my own bathroom. Of course, there was a creepy spider hanging out inside.

The B & B had a shared kitchen, living room, and dining room. There seemed to be around five rooms and I could hear some kids playing around in a room near mine. After a nice warm shower, I went to sleep.

In the morning, I woke up too late to have the small breakfast and coffee, so I packed up my stuff. I was getting really behind in my blog posts so I asked the girl who was cleaning rooms if I could stay in the dining area and use the Wifi for a little while. My room was emptied so she could clean it. She let me stay and I ended up writing for the next two hours.

I had a great view out the window and I enjoyed being in the middle of nowhere. I like cities too, but after spending 15 years in Los Angeles, I prefer less crowded areas. Being in such a remote area, I realized how much light pollution there is in cities. The darkness and lack of people makes life feel simpler. It helps clear my head and not to be caught up in the rat-race.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider

 

 

Day 1: Merced, California

After driving for about 5 hours, I decided I needed to stop for the night in Merced, CA. Merced has a population of about 81,000 people. It’s very dry, flat, and has a small-town feel. It’s most known for being close to the entrance into Yosemite National Park (it’s only a 2-hour drive from there).

I didn’t have anywhere to stay that night so I pulled into a parking lot and looked on Orbitz because I had a coupon code. I needed something cheap since I was now unemployed and it was just one night. I was relieved to find the Merced Inn and Suites for around $60. Orbitz had it rated as 2-1/2 stars and I thought that should be fine.

While fitting the standard of “fine,” the gloomy, old, strange smelling lobby definitely lacked appeal. The woman at the desk was chatting with a male friend who seemed to be hanging out.

The motel was 2 stories and my room as on the first floor. I parked just outside my room to unload my stuff, which turned out to be 3-4 trips because my stuff was all spread out in different bags, and I didn’t want to leave my electronics in the car. There were 2 middle-aged men drinking beer, just standing outside their room door…2 doors away from mine. They just stared at me as I unloaded my car and gave me the creeps.

Once I unloaded my car, I noticed the room was very large and was furnished with a couch, refrigerator, TV, and a large bed. The yellow lighting made it appear very dreary. The bathroom was old, the fixtures in major need of repair (or replaced, really). You know, the kind of bathroom you say to yourself, “Ew, don’t touch anything”.

Before I left Los Angeles, I ordered this device on Amazon which was supposed to tell you if there is a hidden recording device around. I had recently seen some news story about how easy it is to hide cameras and microphones but this device beeps or lights up to tell you if there is a device transmitting radio waves. You just have to wave it close to each area. I hadn’t opened it before this moment but thought, “THIS is the place to use it.” I turned it on and it started beeping. I noticed there was a scrolling wheel to adjust the sensitivity so I adjusted it and tested it against my phone. Sure enough, the lights and beeping started. Then, I started to go across the room, the coffee table, the dresser, and the TV stand. It started beeping near the coffee pot on the dresser. Confused, I looked all around it because there shouldn’t have been any radio waves. I moved to other areas and it went off again near the fire alarm. I continued this for about 15 minutes and finally gave up. I couldn’t determine if there was a hidden device or if this thing was even working. Later, I read reviews on Amazon (which had a great rating) and saw reviews that said all the other reviews and ratings were added at once, likely from the manufacturer. Ugh, probably doesn’t even work.

I took a shower in the old, musty bathroom and reluctantly got into bed and went to sleep (hoping there weren’t any bedbugs). In the morning, I choked down a waffle in the continental breakfast area, as it was the only food that appealed to me.

When I got back to my room to pack up, I felt sad. At first I couldn’t pinpoint it, but then it hit me. Over the last several years, I had been staying in 4-star hotels. They’re modern, clean, and they go out of their way to ensure you’re comfortable. Now, I was at a 2-star hotel that was old, dirty, and the staff didn’t seem to care at all. It’s weird. I did not grow up with much money. When we traveled, it was to visit family. When we stayed in hotels/motels across the Midwest, it was in 2-star motels. Ever since I was a kid, I loved staying in motels/hotels. I think it was because our whole family was in one room. That one room was the living space, bedroom, and bathroom. It felt like it forced us all to be closer. It always felt like an adventure.

As an adult, I’ve continued to love hotels. Seeing the different amenities, the things they do to set themselves apart, and the comforts they provide (like little bottles of shampoo, so cute!). When I traveled for work, I was able to stay in very nice hotels and I didn’t realize just how accustomed I had become to this standard of hotel. In that moment of loading up my car at this crappy 2-star hotel, I thought, “Is this what my life has become? Is this my new normal? Oh no.”

Post Edited by: Misty Kosek