Hoi An is bikes and lanterns and lizards and magic. It’s a mix of French Colonial sophistication and Southeast Asian vibrancy with a happy, laid-back spirit that envelopes you like a cool cocktail. I wanted to fly all my family and friends over and have us live there forever, sipping mango juice in hammocks by the beach and getting $1 manicures for fun. Scott just wanted to buy a panama hat and play soccer with the locals.

If we ever need to run from the law, you’ll know where to find us.

The windows are open, the breeze is stirring, and the anxiously-anticipated summer is creeping into my household. Being that it’s the first summer in three years that I’m not sidetracked by schoolwork, I thought I’d take a quick break from the scheduled Asia-recap programming to share my summer to-do list.

  • Have a picnic (Crossed off today, above, in the field outside a local high school. I felt like I was 16 again!)
  • Go paddle boarding
  • Eat at a food truck
  • Listen to this album on repeat
  • Eat dinner in my backyard at least once a week
  • Catch a fish
  • Eat tomato sandwiches with tomatoes from my garden (thanks to this wonderful woman, of course!)
  • Take bike rides outside
  • Dance at an outdoor concert
  • Take evening walks with my husband
  • Watch this documentary and read this book
  • And, as always, lie on the beach as much as possible

What’s on your to-do list this summer? xo

 

Excuse the lack of any coherent sentence in this video. A girl can’t be expected to speak eloquently when there are wild monkeys in her midst.

You don’t order off a menu; you just wait to see the ripples from her paddle and hear the sound of her heavily-accented voice.

“Skew-meee!! Buy some-teeen?”

Don’t try to duck under the window. She already saw you. And you know you want those Oreos anyway.

Vietnamese room service: it’s like a drive-thru, except they come to you, and you get to negotiate the price. So basically, it’s the best thing ever.

I’m a sunshine girl. I grew up by the beach and nothing makes me happier than a bright and sunny, 85-degree day. Show me a rainy morning and I’ll duck back under the covers and tell you to wake me up tomorrow.

But in Halong Bay, even I can’t deny the beauty of the fog. Because while the bright green karsts and the deep turquoise sea sparkle in the sun, it’s when they’re clouded in the fog that they truly shine. There’s something about the eery iridescence that makes every view feel like a scene; every vision a painting. And then when the fog goes away, the karsts and the sea seem lonely.

You go to Halong Bay for the islands the sea; but it’s the fog that captures you.

This is our Sapa guide Chi and her son Jahn. She is five feet tall and made of muscle. She  eats bamboo and dandelion greens from the side of the road, gave birth in her thatched-roof home, and has never heard of mail. She is a proud guide when there’s tourists and a happy rice farmer when there’s not. She never went to a day of school in her life.

In two days, Chi taught me more about Vietnamese culture and life in general than I learned on the rest of the trip combined, and I developed a deep affinity for her unassuming nature and no-nonsense style. Ten thousand miles from home she made me feel welcome and safe, and her easy manner made me smile for hours of hard trekking.

This is Chi, the only woman who ever has, and who ever will, get me to ride on a motorbike.

This lady was not our guide in Sapa, but she followed us through 5 hours of strenuous hiking anyway. She followed us for miles of ascents and descents. She held my hand as I struggled to balance on steep, rocky slopes in my expensive sneakers, while she climbed easily in flimsy plastic sandals with a baby on her back. She followed us for 5 hours; all with the hope of selling us $5 worth of embroidery at the end. And then she went home to stitch more embroidery for the next day.

She smiled the whole time.

I’ll tell you one thing about French occupation: it makes for some damn good omelettes. I ate one of these every morning I could, usually with a big, doughy croissant or an even bigger baguette. After a long night sleeping in an old train, I don’t think anything could taste better.

Read Hanoi, part I here.

We take a cab to the train station in Hanoi and it’s like we’ve entered a different world. A third world. Shanghai was bright lights, pristine streets, street signs with English translations underneath. Here it is nighttime, and the roads—when paved—are padded with a thick layer of dust. The swarms of motorbike riders wear bandannas and masks to keep from swallowing it. Whole families pile onto a bike, Dad driving, mom behind him, baby in between them, and any older children standing up front in between Dad and the handlebars. Helmets are a rarity.

Through this dark, dusty mist, we see signs in another language. It’s desolate. It’s dirty. I feel we could be anywhere—Haiti, Iran, a border town in Mexico. We pass lots of roadside stands and open air shanty restaurants where the only seating is plastic children’s stools. We see open fires on the side of the road.

We get to the train station and no one’s there. Yet somehow, I refuse to believe we’ve gotten had. Through the grace of God Scott learns we’re at the wrong train station—apparently there are A and B stations with the same name. Our train leaves in 15 minutes but the taxi driver we find says we’re close. It doesn’t seem close enough. The traffic here is as maddening as it is confusing.

We make it to the proper train station and see a person out front holding a sign with our name. Sweet relief! He rushes us through the station, across the tracks (no platform here) and into our sleeper cabin. Seconds later the train takes off.

When you leave a city like Shanghai, where you drive thirty minutes to the airport and never once lose sight of skyscrapers in any direction, any city would seem meager in comparison. But when you go from a city like Shanghai to a city like Hanoi, where the buildings lean precariously onto one another and everything from homes to street signs to people are clouded in a thick cake of dust, it feels like you went back in time. And when we landed in Hanoi we were feeling even more lost in time—or maybe in translation—because we were in one of those inevitable travel situations where you feel like the fate of your trip is hanging by a thread. Our thread was dangling precariously by the hand of a swindling  Vietnamese desk attendant at the Hanoi airport’s tiny travel information booth. Here’s what I wrote in my travel journal the following day:

Off the plane and the journey begins. What a difference a few hours make. Compared to the pristine goliath of PuDong Airport, Hanoi is the stinky small town bus stop. We have to deplane (my new favorite travel word) on the tarmac and then take a crowded bus to get to the airport. Scott waits for baggage as I find an ATM, where I get $1 million dong, thinking it’s $500 and will last me almost to the end of our trip. Later I realize it’s $50. Doh! There’s just too many zeros.

The flight landed late, so we now have just over an hour to make the overnight train we need, and the station is 40 minutes away. We don’t have a ticket and I’m nervous.  I go to the travel information desk to see if I can call the office of the train rep I’d been emailing with. Instead they try to sell me a ticket themselves. I’m skeptical; I know these people are hustlers. They’re selling “taxi vouchers” into Hanoi at twice the rate my guidebook says and they’re giving the hard sell on everything to anyone who will listen. Nothing seems legit.

He makes a call and says there are only 2 tickets left on the train we want. I’m sure he’s lying but buy the tickets anyway. It’s not worth the risk—or the time—to try to figure out the purchase on our own. Better to get where we need to go, even if it means getting taken for a ride.

Of course there’s a catch. The attendant wants us to pick up the tickets at an office in town but I refuse—there’s no time! He finally promises to have someone meet us with the tickets at the station. We leave the airport with nothing but this promise and a handwritten receipt.

To be continued…

A photo of me.

About me

Hi, I'm Pam. I'm a runner, reader and recent MBA grad living in Baltimore with my husband. I work in PR, but I spend my off-hours writing here about my life, which mostly revolves around family, friends, fashion and fitness. Sometimes I throw in the occasional food photo just to make sure you're paying attention.

Contact

For questions or freelance opportunities, contact me at theinspirationfiles {at} gmail {dot} com. I'd love to hear from you!

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