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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Day 263: The Worst Bus Ride of My Life

It was time to checkout of my hotel in Hanoi and head north to Ha Giang. I talked with a woman at the reception desk about the best way to get there because it was a six-hour bus ride away. I asked her about the 10:00 am bus and taking a taxi to get to the main station. I found a site online that said the seats were recliner seats and it was not a sleeper bus. I also read that the sleeper buses were very uncomfortable. I wanted to get some writing done, so a seat would be better than a sleeper bus.

The woman told me that I’d be better off taking the 11:00 am bus because she could get them to pick me up. Going to the main bus station would be backtracking. I explained that I needed to get there by 5:00 pm and she assured me that I would. After eating breakfast, I brought my bags to the lobby.

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At 11:08 am, I asked the woman at reception, “I thought the bus left at 11:00 am?” She replied, “Yes.” Finally, at 11:30 am, a van picked me up. It was small and the back didn’t have much space for luggage. There were three guys in the back from Europe. I sat in the front seat with my duffel bag on my lap. Next, we picked up three British girls and there was no space for their giant backpacks, so they had to put them on their laps. They said the tight van quarters were “mental.”

At 12:15 pm, we arrived at the bus station and were instructed to board the bus. We put our luggage in the lower portion of the bus. I was extremely upset when I saw that the bus was a sleeper bus. There were three rows of sleeper “seats” that consisted of slightly reclined seats on the floor with a metal container where you were supposed to put your legs and feet. There were two narrow walkways and it was already halfway full. There were also metal bars around each sleeper seat that were holding up a second level.

The driver instructed me to take off my shoes and assigned a seat in the middle of the first floor. It was extremely narrow and made for people shorter than 5’2”. Being 6’1”, it was laughable. The problem is that I had to put my legs into the metal container. Since they wouldn’t fit, I had to sit with my legs bent and my knees practically in my face.

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The British girls were behind me and felt bad for me. They could barely fit and knew it was even worse for me. The bus filled up and we were off. I desperately didn’t want to take this bus for six hours, but at that point, I didn’t have an option. The British girls pointed to a guy above them on the second story who had a blanket over him. They thought he might be masterbating. I cringed.

The bus smelled of body odor and farts. People shouted on their phones, watched videos on their phones without headphones, and the driver constantly honked his horn. There was not a restroom on the bus, so I tried not to drink too much water. There wasn’t any air flow near me and I was miserable.

If I stretched my legs, my butt was halfway up the reclined seat and my head would hit the top floor. I found that I could turn to my left side and at least then my legs weren’t bent in my face. However, the metal bar was painful. I put my blanket on the bar which helped a little bit.

After two hours, we stopped at a remote store that also had a restroom. I got off the bus, not knowing how long we had there. The restroom was a squat toilet and didn’t have toilet paper. I was very grateful that I always carried Kleenex with me throughout Southeast Asia. There wasn’t any soap, which was common, so I used my hand sanitizer.

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I bought a small bag of puffed chips and a cup of popcorn. I got back on the bus and climbed to my seat. I couldn’t help but notice that we picked up another six people who didn’t have seats. They sat in the two aisles and two of them decided to sit directly next to me, shoulder to shoulder. This meant I couldn’t turn my legs to the side. It was also absurd that two decided to smash me in instead of sitting near our metal feet containers.

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I asked the man on my left if he could scoot up a little so I could turn my legs to the side, but he didn’t understand me. I called a worker over and asked him to tell them to move. He didn’t speak English either. I tried to use Google Translate, but I lost cell service. I used my arms to motion, showing them scooting up. That worked and he had the men move up a little. It was enough for me to turn my legs to the side. I couldn’t stretch my legs, however, because the men were in the aisle.

I tried to take a nap, but my legs kept losing circulation because of the metal bars. I shifted to try to get the blood flow back. We made several random stops on the side of the road to let people off the bus. To pass the time, I wrote for my blog on my phone and listened to music. When it got dark outside, colored lights came on like it was a nightclub.

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We arrived in Ha Giang at 6:40 pm. I was supposed to meet with the motorbike tour guide that afternoon, but with the delay I had to reschedule to later that night. I stood in the parking lot and tried to find a Grab. They were all busy, so my request wouldn’t go through. A guy standing nearby who appeared to be a taxi driver said he would take me for 50,000 dong ($2.15 USD). I tried to explain to him that all I had was one 10,000 bill and 500,000 bills and needed change. I used Google Translate and he agreed to give me change, but it took five minutes for us to understand each other.

Once I got into the car, I realized there was not a taxi sign on the car and I got nervous. Then I thought about how he talked with some guys as he left the parking lot. Are they kidnapping me?

Thankfully, I arrived safe and sound at my hotel. The man at the front desk didn’t speak English, so he couldn’t answer any of my questions about the WiFi, breakfast, or how to turn on the lights. He just pointed to the elevator. The hallway on my floor was dark and I had to turn on the lights. These are the moments that make traveling as a solo female scary.

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I walked down the street and ate dinner. The town was small, but had a decent amount of shops. I went back to my hotel and met Opie, my motorbike tour guide. I signed up for a four-day tour around the mountains in the north that would begin the following day. Opie was in his early 20s, around 5’9”, had bleach-blonde hair on top, had earrings, an athletic vibe, and was really nice.

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Opie wanted to make sure I knew how to drive the motorbike because it was semi-automatic and I would need to shift with my foot. I looked it over and said I think I could do it. He told me that I could store my belongings at his hostel the next day and just bring my backpack on the tour.

I went back to my room to repack so that I had what I needed for the tour. The BBC was on TV and they were showing live footage of the Brexit deal with Theresea May in Parliament. I found it very interesting because even though they were obviously angry, they still had respect for each other. In the U.S., it seems as though we’ve lost all respect for the opposing party. I enjoyed seeing how another country conducted their politics.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider 
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Day 262: Learning about Vietnam

When I arrived at my hotel lobby, I intended to grab a quick breakfast, but my tour guide showed up early. The hotel staff, being concerned about my breakfast, made me an omelet to-go. As I walked to the van with my tour guide, Trung, he said, “Vietnamese don’t like empty stomachs.”

The tour would take us a few hours northeast to Ha Long Bay for the day. I sat next to Trung while we picked up the others. He appeared to be in his late 40s and was talkative. He told me that his father was a photographer for the communist government and he hoped that Trung would take over and save the world. Trung told me, “I don’t want to be friends with the computer. I’d rather be friends with you guys.”

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Trung was from Hanoi and he loved the city. He explained that families live together and keep adding floors to the house when the family expands. He said, “If one family member goes to Ho Chi Minh City, it’s very sad because they’ll have nobody. They’ll be on their own.” Trung didn’t seem to like Ho Chi Minh City in the south. He said Hanoi in the north takes care of homeless people, but the south doesn’t, so they have a lot of homelessness.

Once we picked up all of our passengers, Trung continued to talk to the group about Vietnam. He told us that HIV is a huge problem for the country, with 50 new cases each day. He pointed out their red-light district, where sex workers charge for services by the hour. Trung said that because people live with lots of family members, they don’t have a lot of privacy, so many go to the red-light district for prostitution and drugs. He warned us to watch out for needles on the street because they could be infected.

We passed Samsung City, which is a compound developed and owned by Samsung. There are 130,000 people living and working there. It’s so big that they have their own schools and hospitals, and they have to take a bus to get to other buildings. Trung told us that it’s mostly run and operated by the Koreans. There are half a million Koreans in Hanoi.

Trung told us that Vietnam and Singapore are the most expensive places to buy a car. Vietnam tries to control the number of cars sold, so there is a 250% tax on cars. If everyone owned a car, the streets would all be in gridlock. The country has 97 million people and more than 60 million motorbikes. Trung told us, “You could bring your car from the U.S. that you paid $10,000 USD for and sell it here for $30,000 USD.”

Vietnam has a large population considering the size of their land. Four million Vietnamese live outside of Vietnam, with the majority in the U.S, France, and Australia. Trung told us about the corruption with the police in Vietnam. He said, “The cops here are rich. They are not rich in the U.S.” He explained that the cops will pull you over and you will be forced to pay them to stay out of jail. They have a term called “umbrella,” which is when you know someone in the government who can get you off. In return, you’ll need to give them the most expensive lobster and whatever items you sell or make.

Trung pointed out the relatively safety of Vietnam and the fact that they don’t have bombings or terrorists; however, he said they have problems with China, Laos, and Cambodia (their surrounding countries).

In China, they have a shortage of women, so men go across the border to remote towns in the north of Vietnam and tell women they will marry them, give them children, a job, and a good life. These women are so isolated that they believe them. When they get to China, they’re sold into prostitution and work for free. If someone is caught trafficking five or more women, it’s a death sentence. Trung told us that they used to shoot people for $.50 each, but since 2015, they instituted lethal injection. It now costs $10,000 each. Trung said, “I prefer the bullet. Save the money for the people.”

The problem with Laos is the drugs that come from the Golden Triangle (borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar). Technically the law states that if you have more than six grams, it’s a death sentence, but people with money can buy their way out. This has allowed a lot of drugs to get into Vietnam.

The problem with Cambodia is the gambling. There is gambling in Vietnam, but only foreigners are allowed to partake. Trung said that Vietnamese people love to gamble, so they go across the border to Cambodia. They end up losing a lot of money and borrowing from the casino. Eventually, they lose enough that they have to sell their kidney for $5,000. Then rich Chinese come and buy it for $40,000. Trung told us that there are five million kidneys for sale there.

I was thoroughly enjoying learning about Vietnam, but then we stopped at a pearl palace. We had some time to browse and buy jewelry. They have a huge pearl industry there and I bought a pair of earrings. Shortly after the pearl store, we arrived at the boat that would take us through HaLong Bay. We were seated at tables for lunch. We joined another group, but there was still only about 30 people on our tour.

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I was seated with Joanne and her parents. They were from Singapore and welcomed me into their family. Joanne appeared to be in her 30s and was very pretty. She worked in hotel sales and had been working for a Thai company for the last eight months, but planned to start a new job when she returned from holiday. The Thai company was too “old school” and once the top boss said yes, there was no arguing. Joanne’s parents have been to the U.S. and enjoyed their visit, but it was close to 30 years ago.

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The boat cruised through Ha Long Bay, which was incredible! Large rock formations were spread out all over the place. There are thousands of rock islands that vary in size. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is nothing built on the rock islands, most likely because they are steep cliffs.

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We were served various fish dishes to share. I had a hard time eating some of them, like octopus. We arrived at a rock island, climbed a lot of stairs, and looked around inside a cave. The cave had a very large main room and it was just our group there. During the war, they used it as a make-shift hospital. Hospitals were often targets, so this allowed them to treat patients without the threat of bombs. Trung told us that during their rainy season, tourists have to take their shoes off because the cave starts to fill with water.

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We took the boat to another area that had a large pontoon platform to get into smaller boats. The smaller boats would take people through an archway, into a circular area, and then back to the pontoon. There were a lot of boats that had dropped off large groups of people. It was maddening to watch the chaos as people tried to line up to get on various small boats. Most of the tourists were from China. They tend to travel in very large groups and they don’t follow lines when waiting for something, so Trung was frustrated. He told us, “We welcome westerners and all the Chinese show up. We don’t welcome them, they just come. If we stop welcoming westerners, the Chinese will stop coming.”

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We got into small boats and a local rowed us through the archway and into the circular area. It was a short boat ride, but it was fun. We got back to our boat and were served fruit and coffee on the top deck. It would take about an hour to get back to the port and the boat weaved its way through the islands as the sun started to set.

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I talked with Joanne while enjoying some fruit. She was really sweet and we shared our contact information because I had a 24-hour layover in Singapore on my way to Australia and we hoped to meet up. Joanne planned to do some volunteer work in Fiji for several months. She had a very empathetic heart.

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The views of Ha Long Bay were beautiful and I was happy that I had the chance to visit. Joanne and I had to say goodbye once the boat docked because we were in separate vans.

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On the way back, Trung asked me if I had a man at home and was traveling without him, or if he was at the hotel. I said, “I’m divorced. I’m traveling alone.” Trung excitedly said, “Oh! You’re forever free?!” I responded, “Yup.” Trung was married for 13 years and had two kids, but he and his wife ended up getting a divorce. He told me that after ten years, you just get so bored of seeing the same person over and over. Early on in their relationship, they partied and had fun, but not anymore. They had an amicable split in the end.

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Trung dropped me off at my hotel and I walked down the street to eat Bun Cha. It was my favorite dish on the food tour, but this restaurant wasn’t very good. Next to me was a young couple smacking on their food so loud that it was driving me crazy. It seemed that many people in Vietnam were on a mission to eat as loud as possible. I ate as quickly as I could and went back to my hotel. After working on my blog, I was off to bed. The next day I would be leaving for a motorbike tour in the northern mountains for four days and I couldn’t wait.

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Day 261: Vietnamese Prison

An old co-worker, Austin, was in Hanoi for the day before flying back to Thailand, so we met for breakfast. I hired Austin a couple of years earlier to work in sales. After earning his Master’s degree, he quit in the spring of 2018 to travel the world for a year. He was in his mid-20s, was about 5’8”, had black hair, and looked a lot like my ex-husband. 

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Austin spent several months in Europe, Egypt, India, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. He needed to leave that day before his visa expired, so he was flying to Thailand for a short time and then planned to go back to Vietnam because he loved it there so much. He was traveling as a backpacker, staying in hostels. He frequently met other travelers and ended up traveling with them for a while. 

Austin originally planned to travel for a year, but it was going so fast that he realized he wanted it to be more like two to three years. After Southeast Asia, he planned to go to Australia to visit his sister who was living in Perth. He also applied for a work visa there because his finances would only last a year, which was coming up soon. 

Austin gave me a lot of good tips on things to do in Vietnam because he had spent the last month there. He told me that when he first arrived, he was lonely and it felt strange traveling solo again because most of his travel was with other travelers he met. Within a short time in Vietnam, he met more travelers and explored with them. 

I was happy to see Austin and to see him enjoying travel so much. He had the right attitude and appreciated the ability to travel. It was funny because we were both managers at Target, but at different times and both worked with my friend Karyn. We both worked at McMaster-Carr and were now traveling the world. We enjoyed talking for a few hours over a delicious breakfast. 

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Austin had to go buy a plane ticket and leave the country that day, so we parted ways. I walked to the HOA Ko Prison. The sign at the entrance said, “A hell on earth in Hanoi set up by French Colonialists, it was also called “a school” by Vietnamese patriotic soldiers (1896-1954), a “Hilton Hanoi” – where the American Pilots lived while they were arrested in the North of Vietnam (1964-1973) and now it is “an attractive destination” by the friends who love peace.” 

There was a special exhibition called “Finding Memories” currently at the prison. The sign described the presentation as recreating “the struggle of the people of Ha Noi and Hai Phong to overcome the pain and loss of war and to achieve victory. It helps those who haven’t experienced wars to learn more through remarkable and humane wartime stories, especially the stories about American pilots in Hanoi-Hilton. 45 years have passed, and the Vietnamese people always bestow the most beautiful appreciation for American Peace-lovers.” 

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The French controlled Vietnam for 100 years and built the prison in 1896. It was one of the biggest and most solid prisons in Indochina. The prison signs describe  the poor conditions that the French created for the Vietnamese people. It was hard to walk through the rooms and cells. Sometimes there were porcelain sculptures in the shapes of bodies to depict what it was like for prisoners. There was also a guillotine on display. 

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A pamphlet provided more information, “Throughout nearly a century under the French occupation (1858-1954), the life of laboring Vietnamese was extremely hard and miserable: shortages of food and clothing and family separations. Not being resigned to losing the country and being enslaved, the Vietnamese rose up against French colonialists and regained national independence and sovereignty.” 

The first part of the pamphlet talks about how the “Vietnamese patriotic and revolutionary fighters” were treated inhumanely by the French. They were tortured, lived in unsanitary conditions, and then killed. I did my best to remember that I was only hearing one side of the story. 

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During the American War (we call it the Vietnam War), they captured hundreds of American soldiers and kept them as prisoners from 1964 to 1973. Sign after sign pointed out how good they were to the Americans. They gave them daily exercise and even let them put up a Christmas tree. They could also send letters home. I tried to keep an open mind and recognize that I was hearing the history from Vietnam, so the story might be different if told by the prisoners. 

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The last section of the prison was devoted to the peace that the U.S. and Vietnam now have. They were proud that they beat the U.S. despite their better technology and said it was because their spirit was stronger. There were pictures of John McCain who spent years there as a Prisoner of War. There were also pictures of recent U.S. and Vietnamese presidents shaking hands and agreeing to peace. 

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As one tour guide would tell me many days later, “The U.S. and Vietnam share a history.” It was hard to imagine the pain that took place at that prison when it was operated by both the French and the Vietnamese. I know people who fought in the Vietnam war and it wasn’t easy for either side. I thought that overall, the prison did a good job of saying just that – most people suffered on both sides while governments fought. 

After the prison, I walked to a cafe and enjoyed a dessert. The sidewalks were packed with motorbikes, so I often had to walk on the street.

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I kept walking and ended up at a festival where streets were closed off. Little kids drove tiny cars around, which was so adorable! Then I came across food stalls, so I ate a crepe-like wrap and sushi rolls that had hotdogs and vegetables inside. There were groups of people singing and playing music, and others creating giant Jenga stacks in a competition. 

I ended up at a theatre that had a water puppet show. I bought a ticket and enjoyed the playful production. People played music on the side of the stage while puppets raced around the pool of water. 

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I walked through a night market on my way back to the hotel. It was packed with people shopping and eating. I wasn’t feeling very good and my throat was still hurting, so I didn’t stay long at the market. After working on my blog, it was bedtime. I had a long day ahead of me the following day and wanted to make sure I was well enough to attend. 

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Days 259-260: Food Tour and Exploring Hanoi

I skipped breakfast at the hotel again because it ended at 9:30 am and I wanted to be hungry for a food tour that I signed up for. When I walked through the lobby, the staff pointed out that I missed breakfast again and said the next morning they’d give me a wake-up call. I appreciated their concern, but I was hoping that staying in a hotel instead of an Airbnb would give me some privacy. It appeared that the hotel staff were very concerned about my food intake.

The food tour guide, Minh, met me in the lobby. She was 27, had glasses, her hair was in a ponytail, and she was short. She told me to grab a jacket because it might get chilly. I followed her instructions and then we walked to a hotel to pick up a guy. Minh told me about the city as we walked. She was cute and grabbed my arm when crossing the street to make sure I followed her. She was petite, but fierce. She crossed those streets like they were nothing. Minh asked me what it’s like traveling alone as a female. She told me that she likes to travel with friends, but she thought I was brave to travel alone.

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We arrived at a hotel and Jake was waiting to join the tour. He was 26, lived in Los Angeles and Boston, was tall with brown hair, and was in medical school. He was doing an internship in Thailand and he was only in Hanoi for the weekend to explore.

We took a taxi to the next hotel and picked up Michiel. He was from Holland and was only 18 years old. He was around 5’9”, was thin, had light brown hair, a nose ring, and an earring. He was taking a gap year before college, which is common there. His friends weren’t traveling on their gap year, so he was traveling solo for a few months. Jake asked Michiel how his parents feel about him traveling alone. He explained that his parents said he couldn’t take a gap year if he didn’t travel. Michiel pointed out all that he’s learned and and that traveling solo has forced him to do things for himself. I was impressed that he was traveling internationally by himself at 18. I don’t think I would have had the courage to do that at such a young age. At age 20, I drove from Missouri to Colorado by myself and visited family and friends. But going overseas and exploring on your own is a whole different story. Michiel was mature, smart, and fun. It was great seeing him out there exploring the world.

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The four of us walked to our first destination. When crossing the street, Minh told us, “Just be confident.” She held up her hand and we crossed with her. The three of us were all scared to cross the street, so we followed her closely. We went to several food stalls and small restaurants down alleyways eating donuts, egg and dill patties, rice pancakes, soup, meat, ice cream, and (my favorite) egg coffee.

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As we sat at a miniature table, we got to know each other better. Michiel was staying in hostels and explained that they’re mostly great, but sometimes he gets to one where nobody talks and he gets lonely. Jake confirmed traveling solo can be lonely for him at times too. It made me feel better that they also experienced loneliness.

Jake told us about the things he was learning in Thailand. He was in a smaller village just north of Bangkok. One time there was a man who had a spinal injury and his muscles were completely frozen. The local doctors did acupuncture on him and Jake watched as the muscles loosened and the man could move around again. I was happy that Jake was learning both western and eastern medicine because I think it’ll make him a better doctor.

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Minh was from a small town, but she moved to Hanoi when she was eight years old. She told us that the government took homes from the wealthy and gave them to the poor. Because of this, houses have seven to ten families living in them and they all share a kitchen and bathrooms. Most homes have a business on the ground floor (like a restaurant) and they all live in the floors above.

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The government charges taxes based on the width of the house, so everyone builds very narrow houses that are very deep and tall. The houses were sometimes so narrow that I could almost touch my arms on both walls. The houses were packed in side-by-side and sometimes trees grow right in the middle of courtyards, making their way up the house.

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We continued eating at the various food stalls around the city. Minh took us to a cart that the woman carries on her shoulders everyday using a wooden pole across her shoulders. She sets up in front of a bar that is closed until the evening and serves food during the day. There were tiny plastic stools just six inches off the ground for customers. A few men were sitting on the stools eating and one told us that we need to try it if we wanted to “see the real Vietnam.”

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We went to our last stop for egg coffee and sat at a small table. Egg coffee is whipped egg (mostly egg whites) that fills half the coffee cup. The whipped part is sweet and once you stir it, it tastes like a creamy, sweet latte. They started making it many years ago because they couldn’t afford milk or cream.

All of a sudden, my stomach was very upset. I raced to the single-use restroom and wasn’t feeling well. After our coffee, I was luckily feeling a bit better. We walked around for a bit and then said goodbye. We were all extremely stuffed and wanted to take a nap.

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On my walk back to my hotel, I stopped for a manicure for $12 USD. The salon also offered a Swedish massage for $17 USD an hour. I agreed to the massage and was taken upstairs. There were a few tables very close together with sheer curtains around them. The woman made me uncomfortable as she stood there while I undressed. I laid under the blanket and hoped nobody else came in.

After my massage, I rested at my hotel. I still didn’t feel very good and spent time talking on the phone and working on my blog.

The next morning, the hotel staff made good on their promise and gave me a wake-up call for breakfast at 9:00 am. I ordered a banana pancake and beef noodle soup. I love the soup, but it is hard to eat onions in the morning. I went back to my room and researched while resting since I still wasn’t feeling well. My throat had been hurting for the last day and I didn’t want to push myself too hard.

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In the afternoon, I talked with the girl at the front desk and she gave me tips on what to do. It was hotter outside – around 70 °F (21 °C). I walked around and made it to the famous train tracks. They’re famous because houses, shops, and restaurants are lined up extremely close to the tracks. Trains still use the tracks, which makes it crazy that people are actively walking on them.

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I ordered a banana coffee at a shop and sat against the wall on a small ledge. I enjoyed watching the people in the lively area. Tourists posed for pictures in the middle of the tracks creating their (not very) unique pictures. I talked with a young couple from the U.K. and took their first picture together in eight months.

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I walked to the Citadel, which is a huge complex. I didn’t learn much about it because I wasn’t on a tour, but I walked around enjoying the structure, narrow and steep stairs, beautiful flowers, and jets.

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In the evening, I walked to a theater and saw an acrobat show where they did all sorts of gymnastics using large bamboo. Once that was finished, I enjoyed a drink at a rooftop bar while looking at the skyline. I used the time to search for day tours of HaLong Bay. Once I got back to the hotel, the girl at the front booked a tour for me.

Sometimes it feels overwhelming going to a large city not having researched what to do. I often struggle with feeling like I’ll miss out if I don’t constantly do something. I’m learning to let that go and be ok with relaxing a little bit. It’s still a struggle, but I consciously try to have some downtime.

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Day 258: Arriving in Vietnam

I arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam at 8:30 pm and headed to customs. There was a desk with various forms and I grabbed the one I needed, filled it out, and returned it to the man at the counter. The man instructed me to have a seat and wait for my name to be called. I had applied for and received a visa approval online from the Vietnamese government the week before, but I still had to wait for the final visa.

There were rows of plastic chairs and probably 40 people waiting. I sat down and listened in on nearby conversations. A young couple from Belgium was talking to a European couple about their travel woes. They explained that they flew in from Laos and used a third party company when they applied for their Vietnam visa. The visa didn’t arrive in time (that’s why I went straight to the Vietnamese government website) and Laos wouldn’t allow them on the plane to Vietnam without paying a $100 USD fee for not having the visa.

The young backpackers obviously didn’t have a lot of money, so they were frustrated. While we all waited for our names to be called, the Europeans told the couple that came from Laos that they’d have to pay a fee of $25 USD to get their visa on arrival. I had also read that it had to be U.S. dollars or Vietnamese Dong. The young couple looked frightened as he explained that he only had Laos money and the ATM was not allowing him to take out money. I was fortunate that the ATM gave me Vietnamese Dong.

The young backpacker came back from the counter and said they let him pay in Laos money, but it was the equivalent of $80 USD, not $25. The guy started to vent about the corruption he was experiencing in Southeast Asia. He was told by other backpackers that when they were in a hostel in Bangkok, they were smoking weed in a place where everyone smokes. However, it’s technically illegal and they were busted by the police who told them they had to pay a $600 USD fee or be jailed. It was a lot of money, especially for backpackers.

My name was called and I walked to the counter. I paid $2 USD for them to take a picture of me and add a small printed copy of it to their file. Then I paid the $25 USD fee and walked through customs. When I handed the man my passport, he didn’t say a single word to me. He just looked at his computer and handed my passport and 30-day visa back to me and I was on my way.

After I grabbed my luggage, I stopped at a booth selling SIM cards. I paid $13 USD for a month of 60 GB and walked outside. A taxi driver approached me and offered to give me a ride for 400,000 dong. I wasn’t familiar with their money yet, so I used my currency conversion app (Globe Convert) and realized it was $17 USD.

I pulled up the Grab app and it said the price would be 268,000 dong ($11 USD). After I pointed out the discrepancy, the man said that Grab drivers aren’t allowed to do pickups at the airport. I pushed back once again explaining that the app says they do pickups there. He reluctantly resigned himself and agreed to charge me 200,000 dong ($8.50 USD). The man also said I would need to wait ten minutes to see if there were others who needed a ride.

I agreed to the taxi man’s price and waited while the man asked where I was from. I said “Los Angeles.” The man got excited and said, “Ohhhhhh!!!” Nobody else showed up, so he started to drive me to my hotel. It felt strange driving on the right side of the road. I didn’t realize I had gotten used to driving on the left in Thailand.

It felt cold outside with a temperature of 68 °F (20 °C). After spending a month in the Thai heat, this was a nice reprieve. The first part of the drive from the airport to old town Hanoi had a modern highway, was well maintained, there were trees on the side of the road, and there were more cars than Thailand. Thailand had a lot of motorbikes. The driver often drove in the middle of two lanes, making me nervous. As we got into old town, the motorbikes were everywhere, honking constantly.

The driver pulled over and pointed down a very narrow alleyway, which was the street that my hotel was located down. His minivan wouldn’t fit, so I’d have to be dropped off there. It was sprinkling outside, so thankfully my hotel was just a quick, one-minute walk.

A friend recommended the hotel to me. She told me they treated her like royalty and she loved her stay there a couple of years ago. I walked into the small lobby around 10:45 pm and asked to check in. The man said he couldn’t find my reservation and said perhaps I booked with a different hotel. Then he pointed towards the front door. I insisted that I had a reservation and gave him my reservation number.

The man found my reservation, apologized, and then brought me fruit and tea. He understood it was too late for me to get dinner, so he brought me bread and butter to my room too. The room was very narrow and small, but it was clean and comfortable.

I was exhausted after a full day of travel by ferry and planes. After a shower, I was ready for bed. I turned off the lights, but the light on top of the closet cabinet wouldn’t turn off. It was a light for the closet, but the top had a circle cut out around it, letting the light shine in the room. I grabbed the desk chair and climbed on top to see what was going on. I called reception and tried to explain that the light wouldn’t turn off. The man at reception didn’t understand me, so he hung up and came to my room.

I was in my PJs and let him inside. I explained that the light should be turned off when I close the closet door, but it’s not connecting for some reason. He climbed onto the chair and played around with the wires and switch, but couldn’t get it to turn off. He suggested that I just remove the key card and cut off all of the power to the room.

Frustrated, I explained that if I did that, I couldn’t charge my phone or use the AC. The man stepped back on the chair and disconnected some wires and the light turned off. He said someone from maintenance would repair it the following day and he left.

The next day, I slept in and then worked on my blog. Next, I talked with some family and friends in the U.S. and updated them on my whereabouts. I had no idea what I was going to do in Vietnam, so I spent some time researching on TripAdvisor. At 3:30 pm, I left the hotel to explore and get some food. On my way out of the hotel, the front desk staff said they noticed that I missed the free breakfast. Embarrassed, I explained that I had some writing to do.

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The narrow streets and alleyways in Hanoi were loud. Motorbikes raced by while honking their horns, and street vendors were everywhere. When I arrived at an intersection, I noticed there were stop lights, but they weren’t turned on. It was just a constant free flow of cars and motorbikes. Crossing the street was difficult. I had to make eye contact with the drivers and walk across while bikes zoomed behind and in front of me.

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Motorbikes were often parked on the sidewalk, forcing me to walk into the street. As I continued walking, I came across a beautiful lake. Bright flowers were in bloom all around, groups of people were playing games, and others were going for a stroll. I followed the path around the lake and ended up at a temple. I bought a ticket and went inside. It was a beautiful, small temple.

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I found a restaurant nearby on TripAdvisor with a 5-star rating. I didn’t have a reservation, but they told me that if I was done by 7:00 pm (it was 5:45 pm) I could get a table. It was a romantic, upscale restaurant filled with couples. I paid $26 USD for a three-course meal including wine. The food was delicious and I considered this a treat.

Next to me was a couple in their 20s from the U.K. Their snobbish attitude was apparent when they instructed the waiter that the girl was vegan and clarified, “no butter.” The server confirmed, “vegan?” I thought it was insulting that they assumed he didn’t know what vegan means considering he is a server in a major city.

The waiter mentioned the fish sauce that he’d remove as well before he walked away. Looking concerned, the girl said to the guy, “Wait, so all the food we ate in Thailand…I wonder if it had fish sauce in it?”

The guy responded with what I was thinking, “Yes, I’m sure it did. Especially the pad Thai.”

The girl justified it, “Well, it was vegetarian at least. I don’t eat food when I know it’s not vegan.”

The guy responded, “Yes you do.”

Getting upset, the girl said, “No I don’t. I know a guy that says ‘as long as I don’t know if it has stuff in it, I’m vegan.’ That’s not me.”

The guy laughed, “It is when you’re drinking.”

Dining solo at times is lonely. Other times, it’s entertaining. After enjoying my delicious meal, I chatted with the server, Leah. She told me about herself and how she was learning English. We had a nice conversation, but it was close to 7:00 pm and I had to skedaddle.

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I walked back to my hotel and was enjoying the cooler air. Street vendors were setting up small tables in the middle of the streets. Shirts promoting the meeting with President Trump and Kim Jong-un lined the clothing booths. The two had just met in Hanoi and the t-shirts had their faces outlined with the word “peace.” The city was abuzz and I was excited to see what Vietnam had in store.

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Days 256-257: Final Days in Thailand

Once I completed my dive certification, I needed to figure out how I was going to leave the island to catch a flight to Vietnam. Down the street from the dive shop was a hotel that also booked ferries and flights. I spent the next two hours reviewing my options. Weeks earlier I booked a flight from Phuket to Vietnam with a layover in Bangkok. When I booked the flight, I didn’t know I would be going to Koh Tao.

Phuket was now in the opposite direction and would take a full day to get there by ferry and bus. The nearest airport was on another island, Koh Samui, which was a two-three hour ferry ride away. I planned on taking the overnight ferry and bus to Bangkok and pick up my flight there from the layover. The woman at the hotel told me that the ferry that left that night in a few hours was their crappy one with uncomfortable cramped beds that were all in the same room. The thought of having to pack my bags and spend an overnight on a crappy ferry and then a long bus ride after several exhausting days getting my dive certification sounded like torture.

I was still in my swimsuit and all I wanted to do was rest. I had two problems: 1) My flight was already booked. 2) My visa was expiring the following day. The woman at the hotel was very helpful and connected me to AirAsia just to make sure I could actually get on the flight if I didn’t start in Phuket and joined in Bangkok. Unfortunately, their customer service is awful. They told me that if I didn’t get on the plane in Phuket, my ticket was invalid and I couldn’t get on in Bangkok. Even if I made it to Phuket, I couldn’t fly that soon after so much diving.

I decided to just forget about the plane ticket and lose the $135 that I paid. I extended my Airbnb by another day and searched for plane tickets from Koh Samui and Chumphon. The only options for flights had me leaving Thailand one day after my visa expired because of long layovers in Bangkok. I searched online and found that most likely, I’d just need to pay a fee and it would be fine, especially if it was just a day.

Once I had things booked, I decided to enjoy the rest of my time in Thailand. I met Davina for dinner because she was still on the island. She told me about her life back in Wales. She was a nurse and as long as she worked once every six months, she could continue in that career. Once her 15-year-old daughter moved in with her ex-husband, he took her to court for child support (even though she never received any when she had custody). She made a lot more money than him and decided to sell everything and spend nine months in a van touring Europe. Davina then went back to Wales and worked for a few months to save up money and then started traveling again – this time to New Zealand, Australia, and Thailand.

I completely understood Davina and was happy she found a way to live life on her terms. I also made a lot more money than my ex-husband and it cost me financially when I filed for divorce. Thank goodness we didn’t have kids. I have many female friends who have had to pay child support to their husbands who either didn’t make much money or didn’t work at all. It’s an awful feeling to watch the money you worked so hard for disappear.

Davina and I talked about how it is to date at our age. I swiped through Tinder with her to show her people in the area. It was awesome to chat, laugh, and have some company for the evening. Davina was starting to feel sick and had to move her advanced diving class back a few days and she’d end up not completing the dive class.

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The next day, I tried to ignore the construction banging next door because I desperately wanted to sleep in. I spent some time editing my blog and making a video. Then, I took my motorbike to the other side of the island. After walking down several stairs, I ended up at a restaurant where I enjoyed a happy hour two-for-one drinks. The views were incredible and I was trying to soak it all up before I left the following day.

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I continued driving my motorbike around in the sun. I ended up back at the lookout point I had found a few days prior. I enjoyed a refreshing coconut drink and then a beer as I watched the sun set. The sunsets on Koh Tao are some of the most magnificent ones that I’ve ever seen.

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I drove to Siree Beach and ate dinner at a busy restaurant with cushions on the floor with low tables. My fish wasn’t good and my legs started to hurt from sitting like that. I didn’t want to spend my last night in Thailand alone and a guy from Tinder had messaged me. He wanted to hang out a couple nights earlier, but I went to dinner with Davina instead. That night, he said he’d be off work at 11:00 pm and we could meet for a drink. He was from France, was 33, and was there for a few months helping a friend with a restaurant.

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Harry, my British friend, was eating at a nearby restaurant after finishing his homework for his dive class. I joined him, but got there as he was finishing his meal. We had some beers, but he didn’t want to stay up late because of the early-morning dive class. I enjoyed Harry’s company. I saw a lot of potential in him, but told him that he needed to mature a bit. Harry told me that he had matured a lot in the last couple of years. Before, he had no morals. His parents divorced when he was 12 and probably contributed to his behavior.

Harry told me that before he went to Australia solo two years prior, he didn’t do anything for himself and was pretty spoiled. We talked about how traveling solo makes you wiser and makes you have different priorities. In London, Harry would wear very expensive outfits, but in Thailand he just wore t-shirts. I thought it was great that Harry was taking on solo travel, especially at his age. I’m not sure that I would have been able to handle it at age 23.

Harry said he’d stay with me until my date was available. However, at 11:00 pm, the restaurant wouldn’t serve beer unless we went to the bar, so Harry decided to leave and get some rest for his class. After finishing my beer, I walked around while messaging the guy from France. He said he was cleaning up and we were trying to figure out where to meet. Then he stopped messaging, so I walked to a small outdoor bar.

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I sat at the bar and talked to a guy from Denmark who was extremely wasted. He ordered shots for his friends and then didn’t have the money to pay, so he denied that he ordered them. After accidentally knocking over his drink, he left with his friends. Next, I talked with a guy from Sweden who works on a cruise ship in Norway. He works for 22 days straight and then has 22 days off.

The bartenders were a couple who owned the bar. The guy was from Germany and had long blonde hair pulled back on top and shaved on the bottom. He was tall, had lip rings, and seemed smart. The bar had a board on the wall next to me showing how many shots were bought and consumed by each country. I took a shot for the USA and saw that some guy from Alaska took an insane amount of shots over a few days to try and get us to win. We came in third place in the first round and were making good progress in the current round.

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There were 18-year-olds from Europe dancing at the bar to the upbeat music and it was a fun night. The owner of the bar gave me a lot of tips for Australia because he spent a year there. He told me not to miss Tasmania because it was his favorite part. He came to Thailand eight months prior to get his dive master certification, but realized he could make more money running a bar. The guy wrote down things for me to see and do on my phone, so I wouldn’t forget. His girlfriend didn’t seem very happy about it. I went back to my Airbnb and was happy that the French guy ghosted me. I had a great night without him. He messaged me the next day saying he fell asleep and apologized.

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I packed my bags and checked out of my Airbnb. I stood in line to check in at the ferry station and ran into Michael from Serbia. I had met him during my “try dive” a few days prior. We sat together on the ferry until he got off at Koh Pha-ngan. I was taking the ferry to Koh Sumai. I asked Michael if Serbia was safe to travel to as a foreigner. He said it was and he gets asked that all of the time. He explained that they haven’t had a war since the 90s. The US was bombing them for “political reasons,” he explained. Michael said they tend to have wars every 30 years and it’s coming up to 30 years without war. He said, “Come visit while you can!”

Michael’s company was letting him work remotely for two weeks after his holiday, but it was an exception. He’s a leader at his company, so they weren’t going to let him do it full time. It was great talking with him, but we had to say goodbye. I continued on the ferry and fell asleep.

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When the ferry arrived in Koh Samui, I took an hour van ride to the airport. At the VietJet Air counter, the guy asked to see my visa for Vietnam. I showed him my preapproval letter in my email, but he had me print it. He also made me show him my plane ticket out of Vietnam before I could board the plane.

When I arrived to customs, there were large signs on the walls saying that if you overstay your visa, even by one day, you could be jailed. I started to panic. I did not want to be jailed in Thailand. When I got to the man and showed him my passport, he asked why I overstayed by a day. I explained that I couldn’t fly because of diving and missed my flight. He told me I needed to pay the fee, which was $500 baht for each day ($16 USD). I was grateful that he didn’t put a red stamp in my passport, which I read would decline re-entry.

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My SIM card ran out because it expired after 30 days. I was trying to book a hotel in Vietnam using WIFI, but it wasn’t letting me connect. It was time to board the plane, so I walked outside and climbed the stairs. When we arrived in Bangkok, there were three of us marked as “quick transfer” because we had a connection to Vietnam. A woman met us as we got off the plane and escorted us to a van that took us across the tarmac. The woman explained that our bag might not make it, but it would be put on the next flight. Great.

After being dropped off, we had to walk all the way through a long hallway, up the escalator, and back through security. Then we walked to our gate. They looked at my passport and made me show my visa again. Thankfully, the flight was running 20 minutes late, so I connected to the WiFi and booked my hotel. As we boarded the plane, a man backed up and accidentally rolled his suitcase over my bruised toe, making me wince in pain.

I was on the plane to Vietnam and was happy that I wasn’t jailed for overstaying my visa. I reflected on my month in Thailand. I hiked and biked in the jungles with REI Adventures and some really awesome people. I explored cities and temples. I ate some delicious new food. I swam in clear, warm waters and learned how to dive. I watched some of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. The best part is all of the people I met. Even though I was traveling solo, I was rarely alone. I met people who made my time in Thailand such a special place to visit. I look back on my time there with nothing but fond memories.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 254-255: The Journey to Dive Certification

I met Birgit at 7:00 am like I promised. I did the mask clearing in the shallow end and then in the deep end. We swam back to the shallow end and I tried the mask removal. I did it, but Birgit wanted me to do it again. She wanted me to be confident and not scared. On the second try, I struggled a little bit. She didn’t feel comfortable doing it in the deep end and our hour was up.

I went to the office while Birgit finished the classroom work with the other girls. While I was waiting to talk with the owner about my options to do a “try dive” that day, I met Gary. He was another instructor there. Gary was petite, around 40 years old, and was from England. He told me that I should buy a mask there because having a good mask makes a big difference. Over time, it would conform to my face and would develop a good seal. After trying a few on, I bought a mask and snorkel.

I signed up for a try-dive on the boat that afternoon. I had some time, so I ate breakfast down the street at the same place I went to the morning the day prior. The waiter came over and said, “Do you want the same? Thank you for coming everyday.”

I walked back to the dive shop and did a quick orientation with the try-dive group. Our instructor was Lewis. He was in his late 20s, had semi-long, curly blonde hair, and was from Scotland. He went over the basics and then we all boarded some pickup trucks that took us to the boat.

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I sat on the top deck of the boat and talked with Michael. He was tall, had brown hair and a beard, appeared to be in his early 30s, and was from Serbia. He was traveling in Thailand for three weeks on a holiday. Once that ended, he was going to work from Chiang Mai. He was a programmer and the company he worked for agreed to let him work remotely for a couple of weeks. This was his first time diving and he was in my group of four for the try-dive. It was Michale’s first time traveling solo and he thought it was fascinating that I had been traveling solo for so long.

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We arrived at our dive spot and I met Frankie, our instructor. He was tall, athletic, had short blonde hair, appeared to be in his mid-20s, and was from England. He was really friendly and helped all of us get our wetsuits and equipment on. I did as I was instructed and used one hand to hold the mask and regular against my face, and the other hand to hold my weight belt in place. Then I jumped off the boat and into the ocean.

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We swam a long way to get to a shallow part of the ocean and then we deflated our BCD’s and descended. We all got into a circle and were asked to do a few simple skills. I found it really difficult to stay down and Frankie had to add some weights to my BCD, for a total of eight weights. Birgit told me that she was very buoyant and I quickly found out that I am too.

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I did all of the skills successfully, even the mask clearing. I found it difficult to stay put though. We briefly swam around the coral, following behind Frankie. The water was fairly warm and it was really clear. We didn’t get a lot of time to explore because we spent so much time doing the skills. We swam back to the boat to go to the next dive site.

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Frankie gave a lot of good reminders, like keeping our hands clasped in front of us so we didn’t use them.  Using just our legs would help with our buoyancy. Once we got back to the boat, they said we could do another dive for $1,000 baht ($32 USD). Three of us said yes. Micheal didn’t want to go because his sinuses were really hurting him after the first dive. The other two people in our group were a German couple in their late 20s.

For the second dive, we used a rope that was anchored in the water to get us to the bottom. This time I knew what I was doing and my breathing was much better, but getting my breathing under control made me sink quickly because I was overweighted. I had to put a few puffs of air in my BCD.

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We swam around, following Frankie. The water was clear, the fish were colorful, and it was fun. I spent a lot of time thinking about my breathing and realized that when I breathed out, I slowly sank. When I breathe in, I slowly rose. We were under the water exploring for 47 minutes. My buoyancy was pretty good, I was horizontal, and I was feeling more confident.

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The dive went really well and Frankie told me that he thought I would have no problems finishing the certification. The problem was timing. I had to catch a flight out of Thailand in two days because my Visa would expire and you can’t fly for 18-24 hours after that much diving.

Diving below the surface of the ocean increases the pressure around you. Nitrogen is absorbed into your body tissues and bloodstream from the air you breath compared to the pressure surrounding you. As you ascend, built up nitrogen becomes little bubbles and leave your body. Flying in a plane too soon after a dive causes the same effects as ascending too quickly. Large nitrogen bubbles go into your bloodstream, creating the bends.

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When I arrived back at the shop, I talked with the manager. He told me that one of my dives that day could count towards my certification. He could arrange for a one-on-one instructor the following day to complete my pool session, the one hour of classroom work on dive planning, taking the exam, and the final three dives. I was surprised that he was able to make this work. I paid for the two extra dives and it was settled.

That evening, Roctopus Dive was having a celebration for those who just completed their various certifications. I was invited to attend as well. The outdoor bar was off of the beach and was mostly filled with dive instructors and their students. When I arrived, Frankie walked over to me and said he would be my one-on-one instructor the next day. He high-fived me saying, “Dream Team!” We got along well, so I was happy about that.

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Birgit was there too. She still had the final two dives with the German girls from my original class the next morning. She was so encouraging as well and it really pumped me up. Birgit told me that she used to be a graphic designer, but spent the last two years getting her Divemaster certification. She wasn’t sure how long she’d keep doing it, but she realized she’s made for warm weather and Estonia is too cold!

Harry, my new British friend, arrived on the island and I told him to come down to meet the team. He was scheduled to start his Open Water 20 the following day with Roctopus Dive. He stopped by and I introduced him to Lewis, who would be his instructor. Harry wanted a good nights’ sleep, so he left shortly after.

I continued talking with people at the bar. I met Frankie’s girlfriend, who was from Boulder, Colorado. She was really nice and we talked all about Colorado because I used to live there. Next, I talked with a girl named Nicole. She was from Norway and was in the middle of her Divemaster training. She was 25, but seemed more mature. I told Nicole about my love of Norway and how I’d like to live there one day. A 34-year-old man from Ireland started talking to us and he was flirting with Nicole. I excused myself from the conversation so they could continue flirting.

I also met Lauren from England. She was in her mid-20’s and had medium-length, blonde hair. She was traveling alone and had just finished her Open Water 20 and wanted to do the advanced course next. She very much wanted a boyfriend because she felt alone on this island full of couples. She told me that she fell for her instructor, Gary, but he didn’t seem to reciprocate. I felt for her. Learning to dive is a very personal experience with your life at stake. It’s easy to develop feelings for your instructors. She was interested in a couple other guys at the bar, but wasn’t having much luck. My heart broke for her broken heart and I understood her feelings. I needed to get some sleep, so I said my goodbyes and drove back to my Airbnb.

The next morning, I met Frankie in the pool for an hour. I needed to do the last few skills before I could move on. Everyone pumped me up the previous day, so I was determined to get through successfully. There were two tips that Frankie gave me that were game-changers for me.

First, Frankie told me to stop lifting my mask up at the top when I was trying to clear it. He showed me how he does it with just one finger. He pressed it in the middle top part of the mask and then blows out of his nose. That’s really all that is needed because the air from the nose slightly opens the bottom of the mask, allowing the water to get out, but not allowing for more water to get in. When I was trying to lift the bottom part of the mask and tilt it back, it was coming off too much and more water would get in.

Second, Frankie told me to tilt my head to the side when I took my mask off. He said the bubbles coming out of my regulator were probably causing me to struggle with water going up my nose. Turning my head to the side made all the difference! As soon as I turned my head, the water didn’t get in because the bubbles weren’t going into my nose.

Frankie made me do the mask clearing and mask removal in the shallow end for 20 seconds instead of 10 seconds to make sure I was comfortable. He told me that I smashed it, which fueled me to keep doing well. Next, we had to do a few skills in the deep end, including the mask removal swim. Frankie told me that he was going to make me swim longer than most people to, again, to make sure I was comfortable. I aced it! I wasn’t in a hurry at all and I had no problems putting my mask back on and clearing the water.

After the hour in the pool, Frankie and I went to an outdoor restaurant on the beach. We studied dive planning while eating breakfast. Then I had to take the exam. I was so nervous because I had to pass. I got 43 out of 45 correct!

Next up, it was time for three dives. We took the pickup trucks to the boat, Frankie briefed me on the plan, and we jumped into the ocean. We swam to a shallow end where I did the mask removal again and a few other skills. I passed those and felt really good. After a quick 30 minute dive, we went back to the boat for another tank of air. Frankie was pumping me up saying things like, “You smashed it! You crushed it! Great job!”

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For the second dive, Frankie told me that we’d swim around the coral and enjoy the dive. There were a few things I had to do, like keep him updated on my air levels. On the way to the surface, he told me that we’d stop at five meters for a safety stop for three minutes. Our watches would tell us when we were at five meters and would begin a three-minute countdown.

When you ascend, the pressure eases and the nitrogen from the compressed air gets absorbed into your tissues. Ascending too fast will reduce the pressure too quickly. A safety stop helps to control the off-gassing. We weren’t deep enough to actually need a safety stop, but I needed to do it for certification. It’s also good practice to do one on every dive.

In addition to the safety stop, I needed to do two more skills where I was either the hero or the victim (air-share). If I was the victim, I would signal that I was out of air, accept Frankie’s spare regulator, and ascend together using his air. Then we’d reverse it and I’d be the hero and give him my spare regulator.

To descend, I didn’t have a rope this time and it took me longer to get down. I was trying, but I’m very buoyant. We swam around and Frankie pointed out fish and beautiful coral. After 25 minutes, we started to ascend to do the safety stop. We patiently waited, but after two minutes I took a deep breath. That breath made me start to ascend and I panicked. I also forgot that as I ascend, the air that was in my BCD expands and I didn’t let it out.

Frankie was angry. He was forcefully pointing for me to get back down. I looked at him like, “I don’t know why I’m ascending.” Then I looked up and realized I was almost at the surface. I looked around to make sure it was safe to surface and then was there. A minute later, Frankie surfaced. He was not happy, “Why did you surface? You were kicking. Now we can’t just enjoy the last dive. We have to do the safety stop and both air-share skills. If you miss the stop on this last dive, I can’t certify you.”

I had made Frankie disappointed in me and I hate disappointing people. I am much more motivated by positive reinforcement than I am negative remarks. I felt like I had let him down. It went from a fun and exciting time to a real drag. Before we got back on the boat, I had to do some surface skills like taking my BCD and tank off and back on again.

I passed those and climbed back on the boat. Then we headed to the next dive site. I was trying not to freak out about the pressure of having to do everything perfectly on the last dive. If I didn’t do them successfully, I couldn’t get certified and all of this would be for nothing.

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Before our last dive, Frankie said I needed to tell him when I was at 120 PSI, we had to do a safety stop, and the two air-share exercises. We jumped into the ocean and started our dive. Things were going well. My buoyancy was good, I was swimming behind Frankie, and keeping my eyes on my air. Frankie excitedly pointed out fish and coral, but I was focused. I told Frankie when I was at 120 PSI and we were able to continue. About 40 minutes into the dive, we slowly started to ascend.

I was so scared that I would start to ascend too quickly and miss the stop. I felt like I couldn’t stop it last time. This time, we stopped at five meters and I controlled my breathing. I made it for three minutes and we ascended. After that, we lowered five meters and did the air-share, ascended, and descended to do the final air-share.

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I completed the skills, but it was hard to be excited because I felt like I let Frankie down. I was also exhausted. It was a long day. Frankie talked about the things we saw and said I didn’t even seem excited. I told him it was hard to be excited when there was so much on the line. We got back on the boat and went back to the dive shop. Frankie told me to meet him at the bar on the beach and we’d log our dives and then I’d be certified.

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We sat on cushions on the sand drinking a beer. Frankie congratulated me, but I felt sad. I have been working hard on expressing myself instead of holding things in, only to cause resentment later. I told Frankie that he really bummed me out when he was yelling at me in the water when I missed the safety stop. I explained that his forceful pointing made me panic even more. It felt like he thought I barely scraped by on getting certified, when earlier he was saying I smashed it.

Frankie apologized and felt bad. He explained that he was stressed out by the other instructors and their impatience. There were several groups on the boat that day, but they didn’t have to do the skills that we had to, which takes more time. He felt pressure from them to hurry up and get on the boat, so we could go to the next site. I understood because I felt the pressure too.

It was a long 10-hour day and we were both exhausted. We ended on good terms and I was really happy that I cleared the air. I wanted to be happy about getting certified and I didn’t want to leave being angry. We hugged and I appreciated all of his efforts. I was able to get a personal one-on-one training and I couldn’t have asked for better instructors.

Birgit was patient, thorough, gave clear instructions, and was encouraging. Frankie gave me tips that changed the game for me, pumped me up, and taught me what I needed to know. I would go on to dive in Vietnam, Western Australia and Queensland Australia. Those dives would highlight for me just how good Birgit, Frankie, and Roctopus Dive are. I haven’t experienced a better group of people or safety standards as I did with this group.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider 
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Day 253: Dive Certification Failure

I drove the scooter to my diving class that started promptly at 8:00 am. Birgit, our instructor, started the class by going over the questions that we had failed on the quizzes on our homework. I wasn’t aware that she could see how many times we failed and which questions we got wrong. Oops. Next, we continued with academics, learning all about the math that goes into it, the different types of oxygen, hand signals, and all of the ways you can die.

I know this is all necessary, but there are so many ways you can die when diving. Not just running out of air, but getting the bends. Initially, I was worried about sharks. After all of the academics, I didn’t even think about sharks. I only cared about all of the science that goes into breathing under several meters of ocean water and how not to die. The number one thing to remember is to “never hold your breath.”

We got an hour break before going into the pool. I went to a restaurant and got some food and then headed back down the street to the dive shop. We put shorty wetsuits on (a one piece short-sleeve shirt and shorts). It was thick and helped with the cold. We got into the shallow end of the pool and put our BCD (vest) with tanks on.

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We had to do a lot of skill tests under the water, but in the shallow end first. We put the regulators in (the piece that goes into your mouth and gives you oxygen) and got on our knees so that we were completely submerged in the water. Birgit would demonstrate a skill and we would each do it one-by-one while she watched us. She always had me go first, which was good because I didn’t have time to overthink anything.

We performed the following skills:

  • Swim in a circle for two minutes straight without touching anything to demonstrate that we could swim.
  • Use hand signals to show that we were out of air, accept the spare regulator on Birgit’s BCD, and switch regulators while still breathing and surfacing.
  • Use hand signals saying we were ok, signal that we wanted to surface, signal that we wanted to go down, etc.

There were about 24 different skills that we had to perform to show Birgit that we could do them with confidence. The hardest one for me was the mask removal. First, we had to demonstrate clearing our masks. We’d pinch the top to get some water inside the mask, than we’d breathe out forcefully through our nose while holding the top sides of our mask, allowing the water to go out the bottom.

I had two problems: 1) I have always plugged my nose when I go under water, so letting water into my mask was causing water to go up my nose. 2) I was lifting my mask up too much, so more water would just come in instead of it emptying.

Birgit assured me that if someone struggles with diving, it’s always the mask removal and clearing part. She encouraged me, was patient, and talked me through it.

I was eventually able to clear the mask, but then I had to do the mask removal. In this skill, we had to remove our mask entirely, keep it off for about three seconds, and then put it back on. It would be full of water, so we’d have to clear the mask. We had to do all of this under water. Because the chlorine would burn our eyes, Birgit said we could close them, which I did.

Once I took my mask off, it felt like water was gushing up my nose. Birgit told me that water would stop going up and it would be fine, but there was something causing me to breathe in bursts. It wasn’t natural for me to close off my nose. I am someone who only breathes through my nose when I sleep. I am not conditioned to not breathe through my nose.

After a few tries, I was able to do the mask clearing and the mask removal. However, because I had struggled with it, Birgit made me do it a few times successfully before she was satisfied. It made sense. In order to certify me, she needed to know that I could do it calmly and not panic. Doing this several times was exhausting, but I completed it.

We took a quick five minute break to use the restrooms and then were back in the pool, but this time it was in the deep end. I had to equalize my ears a few times on the way down. Then we were tasked with doing all of the same skills. They would be back-to-back, without surfacing. Once we passed this part, we’d go into the ocean the next day and do some of the skills there, including the mask removal.

In the deep end, we had to do an additional skill. It would involve taking our mask off, swimming with Birgit so she could guide us with our eyes closed to one end of the pool and back, and then putting our mask on and clearing the water. This time, Birgit had the other girls do the skill before me.

As I watched Birgit guide the other girls one-by-one, I had time to think. I was exhausted. At this point, we had been in the pool for almost five hours, I was hungry, and I was also nauseous. I didn’t take any motion sickness medicine and the motion of the water over several hours was making me feel sick.

My mind wandered, Why am I doing this? I won’t be able to have my mask off that long because water will go up my nose. I won’t be able to clear my mask. If I’m panicked in the pool, I’m going to really panic in the ocean. Do I even want to dive? Am I just doing this because it’s cheaper here and it would be cool to say I did it? Maybe I don’t even like diving. I’ve never even done a ‘try dive.’ I don’t need to do this. I should just give up.

I looked to the surface and contemplated swimming up. Then Birgit came to me and it was my turn to do the mask-removal swim. I took off my mask and almost immediately swam to the surface. Sweet Birgit tried to convince me that I was so close and to return to the bottom, but I told her I needed a break.

I sat on the side of the pool while Birgit finished the last few skills with the other girls. Once they were finished, Birgit asked what I wanted to do. I told her that I couldn’t do it and I wanted to do the “try dive” the next day instead of continuing with the class. Birgit told me that it’s natural to struggle with mask removal and that I was so close to finishing, she didn’t want to see me give up.

I felt defeated. I’ve never quit anything in my life. I was drained and I felt like a loser. Birgit convinced me to meet her from 7:00-8:00 am the next morning before class and we could finish the last few skill exercises in the deep end and if I passed, I could continue with the certification. I thought maybe I’d feel better the next day, so I agreed.

I drove back to my Airbnb, showered, and met Davina at a restaurant for dinner. I met her on Phi Phi Island a few days prior. She’s in her 40s, is from Wales, and was traveling solo. I told Davina about my diving experience, how I thought I couldn’t do it, and felt like a failure. She was so encouraging and told me that I could do it. She is certified to dive and was going to get her advanced certification while on Koh Tao.

Davina and I had a nice dinner by the water. We talked about our previous relationships and dating at our age. It’s not easy and we both had stories (more like nightmares) of trying to find a good man. Davina has kids aged 18 and 23. She talked about them and how she encouraged her daughter to be an independent, strong female. Davina was really encouraging and I’m so happy I had her there to support me and make me feel like less of a failure.

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When I got back to my Airbnb, I did the homework and tried to sleep. I had a difficult time because I knew what awaited me in the morning. I tossed and turned, hoping that I would be able to complete my dive certification.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 251-252: Koh Tao Island

I woke up in my hotel in Krabi, Thailand scratching at bug bites. I wasn’t sure where I got them, but they itched! I booked a package ferry and bus ride to Koh Tao Island from my taxi driver the previous day, so I got picked up from my hotel at 11:30 am and taken to a bus stop.

After enjoying some fried rice at a stand and talking with a guy from France, I got on the bus. It took a few hours to get across the peninsula, where the bus dropped us off at the ferry terminal. When I boarded the ferry, they just stacked suitcases and bags in the front of the inside room.

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I spent some time inside writing for my blog and then I wandered to the top to watch the water. We stopped at two other islands (Koh Samui and Koh PhaNgan) before arriving in Koh Tao. Each island was beautiful and I enjoyed watching the sunset on the water.

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By the time we arrived on Koh Tao, it was dark outside and a cool 86 °F. Getting my bags was a challenge because everyone was trying to find theirs in the chaotic stacks. I got a taxi, which was pretty expensive for Thailand ($13 USD), but they don’t have many cars on the island. We drove just over a mile and arrived at my Airbnb.

I was renting a room from a family. I walked into the downstairs portion and was greeted by a pregnant woman sitting at a desk. Although she didn’t speak much English, the woman directed me outside and up two flights of stairs to my room. Her husband carried my bags and told me that his wife could do my laundry for $6.50 USD. It would take 24 hours because they line-dry clothes. It sounded pretty good to me, so I gave him my dirty clothes.

The family rented out a couple of other  rooms, but I felt like I hit the jackpot. I was on the top floor with incredible views of the island because the house was situated on a hill.

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I walked down the hill to the first restaurant that I saw, which was Italian. It was romantic and the other patrons consisted of couples and groups of girls. This island was not a party island like Phi Phi. I sat alone and ate delicious tuna fish. After I ate, I stopped at a market and bought some bottled water. I huffed and puffed as I carried the six, 1-liter bottles up to my Airbnb.

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The next day, the Airbnb host told me that his brother rents motorbikes next door at his shop. Since I was staying with them, they would rent one to me for four days for only $700 baht ($23 USD). I could park the motorbike in the small dirt section in front of their building and the building next door where they (and several construction workers) were doing renovations.

The brother got me a bike and showed me the basics. He also didn’t speak much English, so it was a challenge. The shop is on the side of a steep hill and the night before I heard a girl crash her motorbike across the street while trying to drive up the entrance to her nice hotel. I ran outside when I heard the noise and saw her boyfriend helping her get up and move the bike. I had to sign a form saying that if I wrecked the bike, I’d have to pay a lot of money.

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I rode a scooter in Italy five years prior, but that’s about it. I loved riding that scooter though and even thought about buying one. I was confident I could drive the scooter, but I wasn’t so confident that I could make it up the steep hill. As I pulled away, I kept stopping, hitting the breaks, and putting my feet back down on the ground because I felt like I was going to fall to the side. You need to put your feet up and onto the bike platform once you start driving for obvious reasons. The problem was that I had to turn the throttle hard to get enough power to go up the hill, which scared me.

The poor owner looked worried as I kept pausing to put my feet back on the ground. My Airbnb hosts and some of the construction men were watching me and the pressure was on. My hosts were encouraging me, saying I could do it. Finally, I gave it enough power, lifted my feet, and took off up the hill. I made it to the top and then the road went back down the other side of the island. It was so beautiful! I was thrilled to be on a motorbike and thought it would be a perfect way for me to get around.

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There was a crazy steep, small dirt path leading up a hill. I paused, unsure if I could go up it. A couple drove down the path and said it would be fine. Then a woman came driving up, past me, and drove up the path. Shortly after, she came back saying it turned into too much dirt and wasn’t suitable for the scooters. As I was waiting to see if she would come back, the owner of the bike came riding up. He wanted to check on me and make sure I was ok. I thought it was nice, but I knew he was also likely concerned about his bike.

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I went back down the hill past my Airbnb and into town. There were a lot more motorbikes and cars, so I drove slowly. Driving on the left wasn’t very hard because the lanes were basic. I drove all around the island and then saw a lookout point with a bar at the top. I pulled over and parked by all of the other scooters. A blonde American girl in her early 20s was getting back to her dirt bike and we chatted. I told her that I was impressed that she was on an actual dirt bike. She said she grew up in the country and was used to them. Then she asked me what I had to leave with the bike rental company. I told her nothing, I just gave them money for the rental. The girl looked worried, saying they took her passport and asked for a $5,000 baht deposit. Once they saw that she had $5,000 baht, they asked for $8,000 baht ($260 USD).

The girl, clearly concerned, looked at her boyfriend when I told her that I didn’t leave a passport or a deposit. However, I explained that I rented from the brother of my Airbnb hosts, so he gave me a deal. It’s one of the nice things about staying in Airbnb’s with locals – they help you out. I told the girl where my place was and warned her because I read online that it’s a common thing they do. They hold your passport and won’t give it back unless you pay a crazy amount of money. Don’t ever give up your passport.

The girl and her boyfriend drove off and I climbed some rock-steps to the top of the lookout point. It was breathtaking! From that spot, I could see two different beaches, one on each side of me. The land jetted out, so the beaches were in coves below me. There was hardly anybody there either. I ordered a watermelon frozen drink and sat down on a mat. It was 83 °F with a real feel of 94 °F and the breeze felt good.

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After my drink, I got back on the bike and ended up at a hotel on the beach. I passed two guys playing pool and asked for a table. It was 2:30 pm and there wasn’t anybody there! I know I often eat at strange times, but I couldn’t believe how empty it was. I ate some food while sitting at the best table right off the water. It was crazy. In Hawaii, places would be much more crowded, and Thailand was a fraction of the cost you’d pay in Hawaii. It was just as beautiful as Hawaii too.

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After I ate, I drove to the dive shop, Roctopus Dive, where I would start my three and a half  day diving certification class. I was getting Open Water 20 certified, which would allow me to dive up to 20 meters anywhere in the world.

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I arrived at the shop to start the orientation. At the last minute, a guy walked in and signed up for the class. Roctopus Dive only trains in groups of four or less and this guy now made five. I was impressed that, at the last minute, the company found another instructor and separated us.

I was in a group with two other girls from Germany. One girl was only 18 years old and the other was 22. They weren’t traveling together though. The 18-year-old was traveling with a friend who was getting her advanced certification, so she thought she would get Open Water 20 certified while she was there. We also had a third girl with us from Germany who was working on her Dive Master certification, so she was in training.

Our instructor was Birgit. She appeared to be in her mid-20s, had long wavy blonde hair, bright blue eyes, and was from Estonia. She was very beautiful and had an athletic build to her short frame. Because everyone except for me was a non-native English speaker, she spoke with a very distinct pronunciation. Birgit had been teaching dive certification for two years and loved it. From the time she was young, she called herself a mermaid.

We were in a small air-conditioned classroom learning “academics.” There was a lot to learn and we were assigned homework that had to be completed before the next morning. Once class was over, I drove back to my Airbnb, walked across the street to the hotel rooftop bar and ate dinner. The place only had a group of three people there and once they left, I was all alone. The view was beautiful and the music was nice.

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After dinner, I went back to my Airbnb and did the homework on my phone. We were provided an app to read through A LOT of information and we had to take (and pass) several quizzes. I was lying on the bed and kept falling asleep. There was so much information and I was struggling to retain it all. I kept failing the quiz on equipment, but it wouldn’t tell me which one I was getting wrong and would change up the questions on the next quiz. It took me a few hours to go through it all and I was exhausted.

I had never dived before, but so many people recommended Koh Tao for certification because of the cost. It cost me $350 USD and I was told it would cost three times that in a place like Australia. I figured I should take advantage of the lower price and the warm, calm water in Thailand. I had no idea what I was in for.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 242: Train Ride to Bangkok

Before I left the U.S., I booked my train ticket from Chaing Mai to Bangkok because I had read that the train can fill up in the busy season. It was early morning and the train would take ten and a half hours to arrive in Bangkok. I was in a hurry leaving my Airbnb and quickly ordered a Grab (similar to Uber).

Halfway into my Grab ride, I realized I still had the key to the apartment. Crap! I messaged the owner and explained that I forgot to put the key in the mailbox in the lobby like I was instructed, but I was now in route to the train station. The owner was kind and brainstormed with me on how I could get the key back. We decided that I would drop it off in the lobby of the hotel across the street from the train station. I had to go there to pick up my tickets anyway.

I arrived at the upscale front desk looking like a disaster. Flustered and out of breath after carrying my bags up the stairs, I frantically told them what happened and asked for an envelope. The two women behind the desk didn’t speak much English, but eventually I was able to use Google Translate to get an envelope. I put the key inside with some money for their trouble, and wrote the owner’s name on the outside. I tried my best to explain to the women that they needed to hold the envelope for the owner, who would pick it up shortly.

I messaged the owner to let them know the key was at the front desk. I was relieved when they messaged back a few hours later saying they were able to pick up the key and thanked me for the money.

I quickly walked across the street, found my train, and boarded like the usual hurricane that I tend to look like when traveling in a hurry. I’ve taken many trains in Europe over the years and I’ve loved them. I’ve found them to be comfortable, spacious, and provide beautiful views of the countryside.

When I boarded the train in Thailand, I couldn’t find space for my suitcase. I’m used to trains having a small section near the doors for large suitcases. There was the typical overhead space, but my suitcase was far too big and heavy to put there. I rolled my suitcase to the other door and there wasn’t space there either. I flagged down a woman who worked there and asked where I should put my suitcase. She shoved it in a small space behind someone’s seat on the end. It seemed to be ok, so I put my backpack above my seat and sat down.

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The train was scheduled to leave at 8:50 am, but it left about ten minutes late. It was full and I was glad that I bought a ticket in the air conditioned car in advance. I looked around and I was one of three non-Asian people. The train carried mostly locals, who seemed puzzled as to why I was there. Across from me was a retired couple from the U.K. After an hour, we chatted for a bit. The man told me that they were traveling for a few weeks around Thailand. I told him about my travels and that Vietnam was my next destination. The couple had gone there six years ago. We talked about the war with America and he recommended that I watch a documentary about its history.

The couple got off the train in a small town, so we wished each other well. The train often stopped in small towns for pick-ups and drop-offs. While the towns are larger than the villages that I visited in the northern mountains, they aren’t nearly as large as Chaing Mai. They were good mid-size cities. The countryside was stunning – all green rolling hills and farmland.

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When I booked the train the month before, I read online that the trains are often delayed. The website warned of not booking a flight within less than five hours after the train was scheduled to arrive. I figured out why. The train would frequently go backwards to make room for an oncoming train. This was often just after we left the station. Sometimes we went backwards or stopped for ten minutes. Other times we went backwards or stopped for at least 20 minutes.

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I went to use the restroom onboard and was extremely disappointed when I saw a squat toilet. I checked the other toilet to see if there was a sit-down toilet in there. Nope, another squat toilet. If you’ve never seen a squat toilet, it is a hole in the ground with a metal plate around it, like a pan. I am tall and cannot squat that low, so I did my best to aim correctly. The train was bumpy and swayed side-to-side, adding to the difficulty. I was grateful that I always carried a small pouch of tissues in my purse and hand sanitizer. I decided I would limit how much I drank in an attempt to avoid having to use the squat toilet again.

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For lunch, the crew came around and served small plastic containers with fish that were like sardines. It was dry and hard to eat. I didn’t want to be rude, so I ate as much as I could. Luckily the rice wasn’t bad. I’m not used to eating fish like that and it made my stomach turn. I ate my protein bar to help fill me up.

Mosquitos flew around the train from time to time. I never heard any announcement for a cafe car and all of the locals had their own food, so I didn’t try to find one. They all seemed to have this ten and a half hour train ride down. The old woman next to me tied a plastic bag to the bar near her and used it as a trash bag. She had lots of snacks and food in plastic containers.

We didn’t talk because she didn’t speak English, but I dropped my snack at one point and she picked it up. I thought she seemed nice. That is until she asked me to move seats. Several hours had gone by and there was now an empty seat across the aisle. I knew someone would eventually get on, but the woman was pointing forcefully, so I moved over.

Sure enough, someone got on the train an hour later and asked for their seat, so I moved back to my seat. The woman got off the train at around 4:30 pm and a chubby guy sat down instead, making me feel squished. I spent most of the time on the train listening to my music and writing on my iPad mini to catch up on my blog.

We arrived in Bangkok two and a half hours late, getting in close to 10:00 pm. I normally like trains, but this train was not enjoyable. I did get to see the countryside, but it was a very long day in a bumpy, mosquito-filled train with not much to eat. I decided trains were not a good option in Thailand.

As I was waiting to get off the train, I was standing in the aisle with my suitcase. A man near me asked, “Where are you from?” I replied, “The U.S.” His face lit up, “Oh! USA baby!!” I laughed. He continued in his limited English, “Trump! I like him. USA number one. That’s how it should be. My sister is married to an American.” I just smiled and nodded and then got off the train.

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I ordered a Grab to my Airbnb. As we drove on the highway, I could see all of the high-rise buildings, which was very different than Chaing Mai. I was sitting in the back seat and looking out the front window watching a guy on a motorbike drive in front of us. All of a sudden, there were emergency lights redirecting traffic. My Grab driver and I watched in horror as the man in front of us zigzagged, swerved, and eventually hit the car coming onto the highway.

We both gasped and were concerned for the driver. There were already emergency personnel there and thankfully he wasn’t going too fast, so we continued on.

I arrived at my Airbnb, which was a four-story narrow house connected to many other houses. I followed the instructions and got the key from the lockbox. The first level looked like a business with glass windows, workout equipment, and random stuff sitting around. I took off my shoes and carried my bags up three flights of stairs. My room was labeled and it appeared several rooms were rented out.

The room was large with a private bathroom and a small balcony. I was happy to have a small kitchenette, even though it was on the balcony. It had air conditioning, a TV with Netflix, and it was a comfortable space. The bed was hard, as was pretty much every bed in Thailand. I was exhausted from the day and went to bed right away. I knew Bangkok was a large city, so I was interested to see how it differed from Chaing Mai.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 78-79: Camping on a Ferry

I arrived to the ferry terminal later than I should have, around 8:00 am. No matter how hard I try, I am often running slightly late for anything that requires me to wake up early. I was waved on to the ferry shortly after I arrived and they asked me to parallel park in a very tight space. I was successful and the guy guiding me said, “Perfect, wow!” You can’t live in Los Angeles for 15 years and not know how to parallel park.

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I grabbed my backpack and headed to the deck of the ferry. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw there were only a handful of people up there. I found a good lawn chair and dragged it to the window, right at the start of the solarium. The solarium is a partially covered area with heat lamps. Being at the edge, I could have the views and some heat from the lamps.

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There were two girls slowly waking up near me. One was wearing a George Washington sweatshirt and looked upset at having to wake up for the stop. It was a two hour stop in Haines to off-load and reload people (they were getting off at that stop). The girls had just finished the Klondike relay race and were exhausted.

I blew up my thermarest sleeping pad and got my sleeping bag out so people knew that chair was taken. Once I was all set up, I enthusiastically walked over to the uncovered deck and was attempting to take a selfie. A man walked over and offered to take my photo.

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Ralph is from Boulder, Colorado and is retired. He was thin and had short gray hair. Ralph was traveling in a van that he retrofitted so he and his friend could sleep in it. They drove through Montana, Banff, Alaska, and now back through Canada. They were doing a lot of fishing on their travels. I told Ralph that I was awed by the drive from Haines Junction to Haines and he said he thought it was more beautiful than driving through Banff.

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Ralph told me about life in Boulder and how Google set up a small shop there, which has caused the cost of housing to increase. He said there are times when he goes for a hike in the evening and a cohort of 12-15 people will be climbing up the mountain after work, sometimes with their Google badge still on.

Ralph and I talked about our travels and why we chose to sleep outside. When taking this ferry, people can pay for a room (would have cost about $200) or people can sleep anywhere inside or outside. The ferry is very basic and so are the rooms. It’s definitely not a cruise ship. There is one restaurant onboard open during breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There is a small movie room that plays movies a few times a day. But that’s all there is.

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The inside does have a couple of large rooms with chairs to watch the views. People who choose to sleep inside put their sleeping bag in between the rows of chairs, which is what Ralph’s friend was doing. As long as they’re not blocking the aisle, they can sleep anywhere.

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On the outside of the ferry, you can set up a tent on the deck or just sleep on one of the lawn chairs under the heaters. I was planning on doing the tent until the man I met while flying to Denver recommended that I shouldn’t bother with a tent. I’m glad I took his advice. Because it was the end of the season, there weren’t any other tents and I still felt like I had privacy.

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After talking with Ralph for a bit, I headed to the restaurant to eat some breakfast. I was almost finished eating when Ralph showed up with his tray of food and joined me. Shortly after, the ferry pulled away from the dock and we were on our way.

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Ralph told me he’s been to Alaska eight times. Sometimes he’s flown, other times he’s driven. He’s gone with his wife, and once with his daughters. For this trip in his newly renovated van, he and his friend had been eating the salmon they caught. This was his first meal in three weeks that was “eating out.”

Ralph’s friend Dave joined us at the end of breakfast and Ralph introduced me. He laughed, “She’s retired too.” Dave just finished taking a shower and they told me when they were in Valdez, they took advantage of showers at the public pool.

I told the men that I was thrilled to be on the ferry because it felt so fun and so basic. I liked that it didn’t have a lot of amenities like cruise ships have. There aren’t any distractions – we could sit back and enjoy the scenery. They told me, “You’re too young to cruise. They have casinos, and shows, and it’s too flashy.”

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Ralph and Dave used to be mechanical engineers at IBM and knew of “the big yellow book” that the industrial company I worked for during the last 11 years produced every year.

After breakfast, I walked around the ferry to see what else was there. I walked past the reclining room, which gave people a nice, relaxing way to watch the world go by.

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I was surprised that I still had cell service. I called my cousin Misty and we were able to catch up while I sat on the deck watching the mountains. It was incredible. Mountains were on both sides of the ferry and didn’t seem like they’d stop anytime soon.

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For lunch, I ate my leftover pizza in an empty room that used to be the bar. The ferry was stopped in Juneau for more loading and unloading. There was a guy sitting near me who was a maintenance technician for the ferries. He was getting to Juneau as a stopping point to board another ferry that was delayed. He explained to me that the city of Juneau is 13 miles away from where the ship docks, so it wouldn’t be worth it for me to get off. He pointed out that cruise ships get the spots close to downtown.

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The man told me the ferries closed the bars about two years ago because they said they didn’t make any money. He didn’t believe them because a friend of his said he’d make $900 on a 36-hour ferry ride. They closed the gift shop at that time too.

The man told me I might see some whales. He explained that the ferries try their best to avoid pods so they don’t kill them, but one had died from a ferry recently. He angrily pointed out that cruise ships just go right through pods of whales and don’t care if they are killed. Ferries at least try and avoid them.

The man got off the ship and I took a nap in the warm sun on the deck under the solarium. Once I felt rested, I went back to the deserted bar and wrote a blog post for my next entry. After that, I ate dinner at the restaurant, watched a movie “Geo Storm,” which was terrible movie, washed my face, and headed to bed.

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I slept surprisingly well thanks to my sleeping pad. My sleeping bag and the nearby heat lamps kept me warm as I listened to the waves and the engine. Occasionally the ferry would stop in some city and make a few announcements, which woke me up.

The sun started rising around 5:00-6:00 am. A loud, rude, woman came to the deck asking for a lighter so she could smoke. When no one had one, she said, “You guys are backpackers? In tents? And none of you have a lighter? What year were you born?”

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For breakfast, I found Ralph and Dave in the restaurant and joined them. We took our time eating and having great conversations ranging from the work they used to do as engineers, the fires they encountered in British Columbia, the giant salmon they caught and ate, and how the human population is decreasing. We talked about how the birth rate is low in most countries. People aren’t dying much any more like they used to, so the there’s still a lot of people. But what happens in a few decades when the low rate has been going on for so long?

I told them about an article I read pointing out people in Japan don’t want to get married and aren’t having kids (or even interested in having sex). It’s so bad, the government has stepped in and spent lots of money arranging social events trying to get people to date.

We talked about border crossings and Ralph said that years ago he was crossing into Canada in an old Subaru and looked like a hippy. He was pulled over and his whole car was searched for over an hour until he was released.

I was loving the conversations with these men and was happy I met new friends to keep me company. The ferry arrived at Ketchikan, which is where they were getting off. Ralph went to the deck to grab his backpack while Dave and I watched some seaplanes. He nostalgically told me he’d be a pilot in another life. He said when Ralph was 24, he flew a plane from Colorado to Fairbanks.

I hugged Ralph goodbye and felt honored to have met them. Intelligent, adventurous, and kind men. After they disembarked, I decided to walk into town during the quick stop. I only made it to Safeway, where I bought some lunch and brought it back to the ferry.

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I spent the afternoon writing some more, watching “Only The Brave,” which made me cry, and sitting on the deck enjoying the views. I watched the sunset just before we arrived to Prince Rupert around 9:00 pm. It started to drizzle and get very cold. I was thankful that the weather had been amazing up until that point.

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I drove my car off the ferry and had to go through customs since I was now back in Canada. Thankfully, it was painless. I arrived at my 2-star hotel in Prince Rupert in the dark, exhausted and in need of a shower.

The hotel was gross and I thought it was ironic that the ferry was more clean and comfortable. The ferry definitely lived up to all of the hype!

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 57-58: Denali National Park

It was time for me to check out of my Airbnb and head towards Denali National Park. Living as a nomad has its challenges. I needed some refills on medications and though my doctor overnighted them to my Airbnb, they still hadn’t arrived. The owner said that overnight to Fairbanks takes about three days and she offered to ship them to me in Anchorage once they arrived.

My next motel was in Healy, Alaska. It’s only an hour and a half drive south of Fairbanks and it’s the closest city to Denali National Park. The drive was fairly flat and I missed  driving through British Columbia and the Yukon. But as I got closer to Healy, mountains appeared in the distance.

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I pulled into the deserted gravel parking lot of the Denali Park Hotel (which was actually a motel) around 4:00 pm. The lobby was in an old train car. I asked the girl at the desk what there was to do there and she gave me a map that included some hikes. She told me the motel used to be inside the park until a law was passed prohibiting accommodations inside the park. They relocated, but were able to keep the original name.

I pulled my car in front of my room and unloaded my bags in the cold wind. The motel seemed to be on a raised foundation and it sounded hollow below my feet.

It was an ok motel, but the view from my window was fantastic! A massive, beautifully majestic mountain loomed just outside.

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Despite the view, I was angry that I paid $375 for two nights there. This was the most expensive place I had stayed so far and it felt unfair that they could charge so much just because it was close to Denali. There are a few hotels right outside the entrance to Denali National Park, but they were $300-$700 per night!

There were just a few businesses (grocery store, gas station, restaurant) along the two-lane highway that ran through the tiny town. I went to the small, expensive grocery store and picked up some food. After returning to the motel to eat dinner, I turned on the TV. I watched a classic, Groundhog Day, and relaxed.

The next morning, I prepared for a hike in Denali National Park. Denali mountain is the tallest peak in North America and only 33% of visitors actually see the top of the peak because clouds often roll in. Visitors can only drive 15 miles into the park. To see more, you have to take a guided tour bus. I considered taking one, but they ranged from six-ten hours and I didn’t want to spend my time inside of a bus. I preferred being closer to nature and hiking.

One of the bartenders in Fairbanks told me about an 8-mile hike (roundtrip) that starts at mile 13 of the drive inside. I found the trail entrance pretty easily and there was plenty of parking. The hike started out flat and easy, but within half of a mile, it started to climb.

I was nervous about wildlife, bears in particular, so I kept my eyes peeled. Once I started to climb, the trees became less dense and I had outstanding views! I was really happy that I chose to hike instead of take a bus.

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After about a mile in, I passed two rangers who were taking a break from repairing a section of the trail. After two miles, the elevation gain was noticeable and the cold wind kicked in harder. Without tree cover, my shorts and a t-shirt weren’t going to cut it. I saw a few other people who were wearing pants and coats and probably thought I was crazy.

I took my pants and jacket out of my backpack and put them on. I’d start with my wind/rain jacket first and see how warm it kept me. I also put my gloves on because my hands were starting to hurt from the cold.

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I arrived at the top and the wind was dramatically worse, making it hard to keep from being blown over. The gorgeous rocky mountains full of green trees reminded me of Norway.

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I continued on the trail that went down the other side of the mountain to the parking lot at mile 15 of the road. The hike wasn’t as pretty as the other side and I needed to hike back the way I came to make it to my car, so after a mile I turned around. The total would be six miles with 1,800 ft elevation gain and I was pleased.

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When I came to the peak again, the wind seemed to be even stronger. A woman and her mother asked me if I’d take a picture of them together. I took theirs and they took mine. As they started to hike away, she yelled something to me. She was about 10 feet away from me and I couldn’t hear her. After having her repeat what she said a few times, I realized she was just telling me to have a good hike. The wind was that loud!

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I thought about putting my coat on, but my jacket was better at resisting the wind. It felt like it must be about 35° F. I can only imagine how cold it is when it’s not summertime.

I was happy to get back to my warm motel and to rest. Attempting to be productive, I downloaded pictures from my phone to my PC and got some writing done.

The next morning, I needed to drive to Homer, Alaska. It was 500 miles away (about eight and a half hours of drive time). I knew it was an ambitious day, but I wanted to check out Homer after the bartender told me about it.

The first two hours of the drive was beautiful as it winded alongside Denali National Park. It was raining and the clouds were hovering above. I was told the best place to see the elusive mountain peak is south of the park. I kept my eye out, but I’m not sure if it saw it. It didn’t bother me. The hike inside the park was beautiful enough for me.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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