Gili Air: Psytrance and Island Living

The afterparty for The Pirates Retreat was a mini psytrance festival on a popular island for tourism, Gili Air. At 5pm on the last day of The Pirates Retreat three quarters of the pirates took a boat, some cramped vans, another boat together, and arrived at 930pm on the island. There are no roads on Gili Air, so donkeys and carriages waited to carry our luggage to our accommodation. Finn and I only had small bags so we carried them ourselves.
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The retreat captain, Jay, booked bungalows for most of the pirates at Matahari, a small resort on the south side of the island. There was a day between the retreat ending and the psytrance party beginning, so most of the pirates relaxed for the day. Finn and I walked around the island and had ice cream. We didn’t do much except read and use the internet, which we hadn’t had access to during the retreat.

The perimeter of Gili Air, which can be walked in an hour, is dotted with restaurants, bungalows and dive shops. The inside of the island is filled with small farms, local homes and a mosque. The restaurants had the usual tourist menus of poorly executed western dishes and bland versions of local dishes. I liked one restaurant called Mowie’s because they made decent cappuccinos and healthy western style breakfasts, smoothies and salad. The island reminded me of Don Det in Laos, except much prettier because it’s on the ocean instead of a river.

Once the psytrance party started at sunset it kept going for three solid days. A colourful, psychedelic stage and dance floor were set up near the path on the ocean. Black lights and fluorescent colours decorated the area. Donkeys with carriages still used the path regularly and the ravers had to dance out of the way when they came through. Behind the main stage was a lovely ‘chill out’ area with a different DJ and dance floor, a trailer from which a local woman sold tasty Indonesian food in a paper cone and a tent with hippy clothes and jewellery for sale.

The party looked awesome, but the problem for Finn and I was that we don’t like psytrance music. At all. Its pounding bass is too quick for me, the only way to dance is to bounce on the knees. I prefer upbeat music that makes me want to throw my whole body into movement. Psytrance music all sounds similar to me. It’s like one long song being played for hours and days.

I like variety in music, ups and downs and moments to get excited. It’s too bad I don’t like the music because I like the people who go to psytrance parties, the psychedelic stage designs and the atmosphere. Especially during the day I want to be around more chill music, something that matches the beautiful sunshine. I danced and hula hooped with the music for a while though and it was fun, but I wasn’t passionate about it like some people who partied all night and were still at it the next morning. Even in the rain the party raged on. The pirates from the retreat set up fire spinning beside the party so I liked hanging over there, chatting with people and watching the show.

One afternoon Finn and I drank some mushroom shakes at our resort restaurant, rented snorkel gear and went looking for turtles in the water on the sunrise side of the island. We found lots of beautiful fish and coral and found a turtle. We started following the turtle and it led us through the underwater world. Turtles somehow look graceful and clumsy at the same time as they swim and scuttle on the rocks. We followed our turtle tour guide all around the shore and when we lost track of it we found a new one. The turtles looked huge underwater, but when they came up for air we could see that they were only about a foot and a half wide. I reached out and touched its shell and it felt hard, smooth and a bit slimy.

After having spent weeks at Sacred Circularities and then The Pirates Retreat it was nice to spend lots of time relaxing without worrying about missing activities. I liked running into friends from The Pirates Retreat around the island.

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Cycling & Motorbiking Paksé & Bolaven Plateau

Paksé is the transit hub of southern Laos, so Finn and I went there from 4,000 Islands to rent a motorbike and explore the Bolaven Plateau for a couple days. I read that the area is geographically beautiful and where we could stray slightly from the main tourist track. 4,000 Islands was relaxing, but the developed parts seemed a bit contrived and the food wasn’t great. Every restaurant in 4,000 Islands had the same tourist-oriented menu of bland Lao food and poorly executed western food, neither of which were satisfying. It was fun, but we hoped to find a more authentic experience on motorbikes like we did in northern Vietnam.

It took about 5 hours on the boat and bus to get from 4,000 Islands to Paksé, so Finn and I decided to stay in Paksé for the night at a nice hostel called Sabaiby 2 for $10 before adventuring into the Bolevan Plateau the next morning. At the last minute, I thought it would be a better idea to ride bicycles around the plateau instead of a motorbike. We could use some exercise.
IMG_0511.JPGThe river in Paksé

A town called Tatlo, which I read was a picturesque destination surrounded by waterfalls, would be our first stop, 85km away. The next day we would loop around and ride back to Paksé. 85km is a long way to go on bicycles, but a month earlier we rode 50km in a single day to Marble Mountain in Hoi An with time and energy to spare, so it seemed manageable.

After breakfast the next morning we rented bicycles from a shop for about $4 each per day. The bikes looked sharp with their sleek frames and striking paint jobs, so Finn and I thought they would be well suited for our massive journey. We paid for the bikes, packed 3 litres of water, a kilo of peanuts and some bananas in our bags and took off riding.

It quickly become clear that our bikes were of excessively poor quality. My breaks barely worked, one of Finn’s pedals was wonky, both bikes had trouble shifting gears, and they were slow. We didn’t let that upset us and we had a jolly time riding for the first hour, chatting and laughing all the way along. It was less fun on the parts of the road that were being re-paved, because the cars driving past us on the loose gravel and dirt blew dusty clouds in our faces, obscuring our vision and making it hard to breathe.

There were no clouds or trees to shade us from temperatures in the high 30s. The horizon was flat and there wasn’t much nature to speak of aside from some shabby bushes. The chain kept falling off my bike. We stopped for water a few times when we saw a couple trees together that created a bit of shade. There was a slight but unrelenting incline, and after a couple hours our fun chit chat gave way to silence, except for our grunting and panting on the bigger hills.

We pulled over at a restaurant to get some lunch and a break from the heat, but it turned out to be closed. We looked at the map and figured we had pedalled at most 20km in 2 and a half hours, probably much less. Our bikes were crappy, it was sweltering and the constant uphill was punishing. It would take until nightfall to get to Tatlo at the rate we were going. We decided to cut our losses, ride back to Paksé and do the trip by motorbike the following day.

The ride back to Paksé was a breeze on the way back because it was all downhill. I tried shifting gears to increase the resistance, but the chain fell off and landed on the thin plastic disk between the back wheel and the gears and shattered it. At the same moment my front break fell off the front wheel and dangled from the cables. The bike was truly a piece of crap and our decision to turn back was validated. We stopped off at a local restaurant and had some tasty noodle soup. I loaded mine with peanuts and chilli sauce. That was the best part of the bicycle trip.

Back at the bike rental place, I showed the bike shop owner the damages to their pathetic bike, and she said would charge me the equivalent of $3 for the repairs. I told her there was no way I was paying to repair her bike and that I wanted my money back for the rental. After a short debate, she reluctantly refunded the rental cost of my bike. Exhausted, Finn and I went back to the hostel, where the receptionist was surprised to see us back so soon. He laughed at us when we told him we attempted to cycle to Tatlo.

After the rough ride, it seemed like the perfect time to get a massage. We went up the street to Dragon Massage for full body oil massages, which cost about $10 each. First we had our filthy feet cleaned, then we walked upstairs where there were some mats and pillows on the ground and relaxing music was blasting from tiny speakers. I was given loose fitting clothing to wear for the massage, but Finn was allowed wear his own loose fitting shorts.

We laid down and the massage therapists started rubbing our shins with oil. The music was really loud, so I asked if they could turn it down a little bit. It was awkward because they didn’t understand what I was asking so they turned off the lights. I felt bad for my request at this point because it was confusing them and it wasn’t a huge problem. I pointed at the music and then she turned off the music too.

The massage therapist focused mainly on rubbing my shins and belly, which is different than other massages I’ve had . It was funny that while she massaged my thighs she kept grazing and knocking into my vagina. That’s a surprising feeling while getting a massage. Finn told me after that his massage therapist also grazed him the same way. It cheap massage in Laos. What did I expect?

The next morning we woke up for our second attempt at a tour of the Bolaven Plateau, by motorbike this time. We rented a single semi-automatic bike to share for about $8 per day and hit the road. We passed a couple interesting looking villages and ate noodle soup again at a simple, rustic restaurant. We tried M150, the Lao version of Redbull, which Lao men sip constantly. It was tastier than Redbull, extremely sweet and not carbonated.
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We arrived at a fork in the road, so I got off the bike to ask for directions to Tatlo and it turned out we had already passed it 10km back. That was surprising because we didn’t see a sign or anything that resembled a pleasant place to visit. Rather than go back and find Tatlo we decided to just keep going along the loop and see what else we would find.

The geography was more interesting beyond that point, with some hills, valleys and forests surrounding the road. Friendly villagers waved and yelled ‘hello’ to us as we rode by. We passed a stretch of road with about 10 shacks in a row selling huge knives. There were farm animals and dogs on the sides of the road. We didn’t notice any guesthouses, hotels or any development that looked like it would support visitors. At about 330pm we noticed that we had gotten more than halfway along the loop and if we hurried we could turn the overnight trip into a day trip and board a bus to Vang Vieng, our next destination, that night.

We rode faster towards Paksé and it started getting cold as the sun lowered in the sky. We hoped we would get back before it got dark. We were pushing the weak bike to it’s maximum speed when a little blond dog suddenly strayed right into our path. It didn’t look before trotting onto the road at the exact moment we were whipping by and there was no time for us to change our course. I was scared that hitting the dog would throw us off the bike. We collided with the dog’s head with a thud and the bike stayed steady as we drove on.
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Finn and I were shocked at what had happened and kept riding as we discussed what to do. We were glad that the bike didn’t topple on impact and that we were okay, but the dog was probably not okay. We considered going back because a hit and run seemed wrong, but what would we do if we went back? Especially since we were in a foreign place where we didn’t speak the language, it didn’t seem like a good idea to go back. Finn suggested that maybe it was our responsibility to put the dog out of it’s misery if it was close to death and suffering. I didn’t think that would be appropriate because it would look very bad if some Lao people saw us stomping their poor dog’s head in. While discussing our options we had already ridden a few kilometres away and we weren’t going back for the dog. I felt bad, but we didn’t have much choice.

We arrived in Paksé before nightfall, returned the motorbike and bought tickets for the next bus to Vang Vieng.
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Selling Motorbikes in Hanoi

My passport was ready to be picked up when we returned to Hanoi. There was a Vietnamese visa inside, as promised, which expired the following day.

The day I spent in Hanoi wasn’t great because I had three conflicts with local shop owners. It was a perfect illustration of why I don’t like cities in Asia. A motorcycle shop owner accidentally sold or rented out my motorcycle helmet, the woman selling fruit salad wanted to overcharge me and worst of all was when I went back to the shop where I bought my jacket that broke within a couple days of purchase the owner claimed I didn’t buy it from her.

The jacket store owner, a small, middle-aged Vietnamese woman who wore a headband and her hair in a ponytail, was offended at the accusation that she a faulty product, but I was sure that I bought the jacket from there. I didn’t expect a refund for the jacket, I was just showing her what happened. I actually don’t know why I even brought it in. I just wanted the person responsible for me being even colder than necessary in northern Vietnam to know, and the shop was just down the ally from my hostel. Maybe that was petty of me, but her reaction was completely disproportional.

She reacted as if I spat in her face and started pulling jackets off the racks to demonstrate how her products are different than the one I bought. She called me a liar, practically frothing at the mouth. But I did buy it from that shop, there was no mistaking it. I told her that it was fine, she didn’t have to believe me. I gave her the jacket back and started to walk away. She took the jacket and threw it out of her shop and into the street and yelled that I was crazy.

It was time to get out of the city. The last loose strings in Vietnam were our motorbikes, which Finn and I had to sell before we left town. We posted an ad online and put signs on our bikes. The marketplace for motorbikes is very active online and in the streets of Hanoi. In the backpacker districts there are Honda Wins, motorbikes just like ours, with ‘for sale’ signs on them, littered everywhere. There are pages and pages of online ads and many motorbike shops.

We tried to make our online ad unique by including silly pictures of ourselves and offering free driving lessons with purchase. We received a bit of interest, but no sales. It was stressful because I had to leave the country before my visa expired, so if we didn’t sell the bikes quickly then Finn would stay behind and sell them alone.

We were in a hostel using the computers when I overheard some Canadians who I thought were talking about motorbikes. I went over, introduced myself and casually brought up selling the bikes. “Did you say you’re Canadian? I’m Canadian too!” Blah, blah… “Finn over there, and I, we’re selling our motorbikes…”

It turned out the people I approached were not in the market for motorbikes, but some clean cut college kids from Chicago who had just sat down to research motorbikes overheard me. They were on month-long break from school and planned to motorbike to Southern Vietnam.

Finn and I told the guys everything we knew about bikes. We told them about navigating, repairs, oil changes, manual vs automatic motorbikes, mistakes we made, anything that might be useful. The guys were excited like golden retrievers. We talked and talked, then brought them over to our bikes.

We offered to teach them how to drive the manual bikes since they didn’t know how. Finn bonded with them about some Chicago-based sports teams. I hoped that the more we built a relationship with them and gave them help and advice, the more likely they were to buy from us. I just hoped we weren’t laying it on too thick and making them suspicious. It was important to play it cool. I hoped we came off as helpful, eager Canadians, not used car salespeople.

The guys were laid-back and friendly, but nervous about riding motorbikes. They said they were going to do a bit more research and we arranged to meet up in a few hours, at 3pm, when they would possibly buy our bikes. As we said goodbye to them a local man approached them and offered to sell the same bikes for $30 less. Luckily the Americans found the attempted sales poach sleazy.

Finn and I were hopeful that they would buy our bikes. We didn’t get any more responses to our online ad, so they were our best and only shot at the moment. I was going to board a bus to Vientiane at 5pm that evening, with or without Finn. It would be harder for him to sell two bikes by himself.

After wandering around the city and constantly checking if we got any more responses to our ad (nope), we met up with the guys as scheduled. They came down and told us that one of them needed to go to the ATM. I didn’t want to be presumptuous, so I asked the remaining guy if that meant they wanted the bikes, and he said yes. Relief and sadness washed over me. The guys gave us cash, we have them the keys and we taught them how to ride. They thanked us profusely. Finn and I boarded the bus to Vientiane together an hour later.
2015/01/img_0606.jpgWe’ll miss you, our beautiful motorbikes!

Hanoi & Hoi An: Tailor-Made Suits, a Tropical Fish-Mobile and a Peeping Tom

Finn and I left Halong City early and quickly rode on our motorbikes the 170km to Hanoi. The ride was mostly unremarkable except for a motorbike on the side of a highway that appeared have bags of water hung all around it. Despite being in a hurry, curiosity compelled us to stop and see what it was. A middle aged man in plain, black clothing relaxed on a log beside his business, which turned out to be a mobile tropical fish shop. He was laid-back and didn’t pressure is to buy anything. Bags of shiny, sad fish hung in circular rows. At first I thought the fish must be for food, because who impulse-buys tropical fish on the side of the road, but upon closer inspection it was obvious that these fish wouldn’t make great meals. They were purely decorative.

The fish were all different shapes, colours and sizes. Different types of fish were in separate bags. Some bags were filled with 30 tiny energetic fish, darting around. Others had 4 large fish in them, maybe a foot long, looking very pathetic laying on top of one another at the bottom of their bags.

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I wonder how many sales he makes on an average day. He was set up outside the city, at least 10km from anywhere. Do people seek out the highway-side fish guy? Or maybe they spontaneously pull over while driving to a suburb and decide, “What the heck, I could use a big decorative fish!”

Our plan was to apply for new one-month Vietnamese visas in Hanoi and have them mailed to Hoi An, where we would ride on our motorbikes before crossing the southern border to Laos. The problem was that the Canadian consulate would only give me a one week visa (which cost $80) since my passport was stolen and replaced in Vietnam. The kicker was that my visa would take a week to prepare, meaning I would have to pick up my passport with the visa inside in Hanoi and leave country on the same day. There wouldn’t be time to send my passport to Hoi An.

We didn’t want to stay in Hanoi for a week to wait for the passport to be ready. It’s noisy, the city people aren’t very friendly or welcoming and there isn’t much to do. The cities in Asia are pretty similar to each other and they don’t appeal to me.

We had to spend at least one night in Hanoi, so we went to one of the cheapest hostels in Hanoi called Green Hanoi Backpackers and negotiated a dorm bed to share for $5, instead of $4 each, with free breakfast for one of us. It was an adequate place to stay. They had free cold and hot water. The young staff were always streaming Kung Fu movies dubbed into Vietnamese or blasting terrible Vietnamese pop music from the computer speakers in the common area. One of them showed off his new jewel-encrusted, fake Omega watch he had just bought online. I couldn’t stand to be around him when he was eating though, because he smacked his lips and opened his mouth wide with every bite. I could hear his chewing and slurping from across the room.

We decided to stick to our plan to go to Hoi An, despite the visa trouble. We took a bus since there wasn’t enough time to motorbike there and back within a week. We wanted to go to Hoi An because it’s the best place to buy cheap tailor-made clothes. It’s what the town does. Tailors outnumber other businesses in Hoi An 2-1. Since Finn’s friend is getting married in the summer, we offered to have suits made for all seven males in his wedding party. We had already passed through Hoi An, but went back to get the suits made.

The bus ride to Hoi An took almost 24 hours. It wasn’t supposed to take that long, but on the way our bus hit a car with a huge bang and then we didn’t move for about 6 hours. This sort of thing doesn’t even surprise me anymore. There is trouble every time we go a long distance. It happened at night, so Finn and I slept through the whole affair, other than the bang.

Long bus rides don’t bother me anymore. I can sleep, read, play iPad games, and listen to audiobooks and podcasts without noticing a day go by. It’s a great time to think and reflect. The seats recline to almost flat and we don’t have anywhere to be, so it doesn’t really matter when we get to the destination. The only exception is when it’s uncomfortably hot. Usually the air conditioning keeps buses cool, but some days it doesn’t and then it feels like a cruel punishment that I can hardly wait to escape.

Hoi An wasn’t as sunny as it was the first time we were there. When we finally arrived, around dinner time, it was pouring rain and pitch dark. We didn’t know what part of town we were in, but we were right beside Grassland Hotel, so we went in and asked for directions. The hotel staff said we were a 10 minute bike ride from the old city and encouraged us to rent one of their rooms. Since rooms cost $10 and included a patio, bicycle rental and a big swimming pool, we stayed there.

We spent the week relaxing a lot. We ordered room service to our hotel room every morning. Pancakes, eggs and a baguette cost under $4, and we didn’t even have to get out of bed. There was also a vegetarian restaurant on the same block as our hotel. I swam in the pool a few times for exercise, but it was shockingly cold. The staff said Finn and I were the only ones to use the pool all season.

Our room was on the ground floor, so we were visible to anyone standing outside in the little space between the hotel and the fence. I like to let natural light in so I leave the patio doors open, but it was weird that one of the middle-aged male staff would sometimes hang around outside our room, obviously spying. First he saw me when I was exercising in the room, and then he went away. Then again he was outside staring when Finn and I were busy together. I looked over and saw him, and we made eye contact before he quickly turned away. He was gone for a while, but then he came back again. Other people would probably be really upset by that, but I just thought he was a harmless creep. I’m going to request hotel rooms on upper floors from now on.

Finn and I hate shopping, so we dreaded looking around for the best tailor to buy all the suits for Finn and his friends. We went to a few places and then came across Kimmy’s Tailor, which was recommended online and by some Canadians we met in Dalat.

The owner was Vietnamese-Canadian so we talked with him without any cultural or linguistic confusion. We were ignorant about tailoring, but he spoke convincingly about fabrics, quality and style and he looked sharp in his own suit. He was about 30 years old and spoke fast, with a calm smile. He showed us pictures of suits that he thought would be the perfect style for the groomsmen. “Small lapels, thin ties, narrow legs, very youthful,” he told us. The suits in the pictures looked stylish and he seemed to understand what we wanted.

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We decided to buy all seven groomsmen suits from Kimmy’s, for about $200 each, as well as wool jackets for Finn and I. Everything would be shipped to Canada when it was ready. Kimmy’s also keeps a record of measurements so more clothes can be tailor-made and shipped to Canada any time. We were satisfied with the suits and happy to stop shopping.

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Except we didn’t stop shopping. We casually walked over to a shoe tailor and were convinced to buy three pairs of tailor-made leather shoes for ourselves. And then we walked to another store and bought two pairs of hippy pants and a pair of shorts.

We hadn’t done any shopping on our trip, but Hoi An threw us into consumerist frenzy. We were sucked in by the promise of the highest quality products made to our personal specifications. We were shown examples of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ quality products and were sucked in by how cheap everything was compared to Canadian prices. We described or showed pictures of anything we liked and they turned it into a physical product within a day. They were good at what they do.

When all the orders had been finalized, our shopping trip finished, we boarded a bus for our third trip to Hanoi, poorer than we were before.

Limestone Islands in Halong Bay

Finn and I woke up early in a tiny town called An Chau before riding the last 80km to Halong City. When we arrived I was relief to be somewhere warmer where we would relax for a few days, but first we searched for a travel agency where we could extend our Vietnamese visas before they expired.

Halong City is on the coast of the popular tourist destination, Halong Bay, where hundreds of limestone islands poke out of emerald water. The city itself isn’t much; it has a small town feel with a few main streets of shops, restaurants and hotels. There weren’t many tourists because most go to the islands in Halong Bay right away rather than linger in Halong City.

Our visas would expire on Sunday and it was already Thursday, so we wanted to our apply for visa extensions before the government offices closed for the weekend. The trouble was that there were no proper travel agencies in Halong City. We found a couple of makeshift offices, but they didn’t do visa extensions.

It was surprising because other tourists had extended their visas in more obscure places and told us the process was easy. We realized we would have to go to Hanoi, which was about 170km away, and do it ourselves. We still had a few days before the visas expired, so we figured we would make the best of it and stay in Halong a couple nights before going back to the big city.

Meanwhile, Finn realized he didn’t have his motorcycle proof of ownership card that we would need when we sold his bike. He searched his mind and figured he must have left it 80km back at the last hotel. Instead of relaxing in the sunshine for the afternoon, Finn got back on his bike and drove the 160km to get the card and come back. It was a rough morning. While Finn was gone I checked us into a nice hotel with a balcony called Nha Nghi Tuan Dung which cost $10.

My friend Laura taught English in Halong City a few years ago, so she connected Finn and I with her Vietnamese friend, Huy, who lives there. He met us our first evening in Halong City and took us to a great local restaurant for dinner.

Huy ordered dinner for us in Vietnamese, which was a nice break from the usual meal time struggle to communicate food preferences. We had tofu, vegetables and local beer with ice. Huy is 27 years old, works in tourism and was friendly, fun and welcoming. Finn and I asked him lots of questions about Vietnam since he spoke such great English.
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Dinner with Huy.

As we finished eating, a young Vietnamese man approached us and asked without any trace of an accent where we were from. When we told him we’re from Vancouver he responded, “No fuckin’ way! I’m from Vancouver!” We asked him where in Vancouver and he told us, “Surrey, bro! I’m a city boy!” Surrey is a suburb of Vancouver. He was so excited to meet people from home in Vietnam, where he visits regularly because his family is from there.

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Finn with Surrey bro.

This guy was a classic Surrey dude. He described himself as a ‘Nammer.’ He was super friendly and invited us all to join his table. We went over and he introduced us to his friends, who were local Vietnamese men. I looked around the restaurant and noticed that, as usual, most of the customers were men. Apparently local women in Southeast Asia don’t eat out very often. I’m commonly the only female in a restaurant.

All the men were nice and merrily shared shot after shot of rice wine with us, shaking our hands after each one. One man at the table had grown his pinky and thumb nails extremely long. I had heard about Vietnamese men doing this, but it was the first time I saw it in person. His nails extended about 1.5cm away from his fingers. He didn’t want me to take a picture of them.

After dinner, Huy took us to a wide grassy median between roads where tables and chairs were set up and men were hanging out under a makeshift shelter of tarps. We sat down and had some tea and sunflower seeds. Some men were playing a variation of the card game ‘Big 2’, which Finn knows how to play. The winner of each round won around 5 thousand Dong, equal to about 25 cents. Finn asked to join the game and put his 5 thousand Dong on the table. Huy helped Finn play and they were doing pretty well. When a cop car drove by everyone hid their cards so they wouldn’t get busted for illegal gambling, and thankfully the cops didn’t approach us. Finn got on a winning streak and walked away with about 80,000 Dong, enough for a fancy dinner for two in Vietnam.

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Finn winning big.

The next morning, Finn and I woke up early to take the ferry to Cat Ba Island, which cost $2 each and an extra $1 for each motorbike. The ferry was about an hour late, but it was a beautiful ride once we got going. The limestone islands looked similar to the mountains we saw on our motorcycle ride in the north, only submerged in water. We met some tourists on the ferry who had paid $30 each for a boat tour the day before, which sounds like a rip off since we saw pretty much the same scenery from the ferry as they did from pricey boat tour, though maybe not quite as close up.

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View from the ferry.

When we got off the ferry, we rode our bikes 20km to Cat Ba Town through more spectacular scenery. Cat Ba was natural and mountainous, one of the biggest islands in Halong Bay. It was a perfect warm and sunny day for the little ride.

Cat Ba Town was right on the coastline and we found a row of hotels that overlooked the beautiful bay. Because it was off-season there were ocean front hotel rooms for $5 – $10. There was a spectacular, fancy hotel room for $9 which we considered renting, but decided to be frugal and get a room that still had an ocean view for $5.

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View from our hotel room.

We couldn’t stay on Cat Ba long, unfortunately, because we had to deal with our Vietnamese visas in Hanoi. We hiked around a bit and soaked in the view before heading back to the ferry the next day. It turned out we had wrong information, however, the ferry didn’t run every hour, it only ran at 7am and 4pm, and it was about noon when we got to the ferry terminal.

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Playing on the beach on Cat Ba

An American man approached us right after we learned we were four hours early for the ferry, and asked if we knew the bus schedule because he and his partner were trying to get to Cat Ba Town. We didn’t, but I had read in the Lonely Planet that sometimes there were no buses from the ferry terminal and tourists were forced to pay an extremely high taxi fare to get into town. Finn and I offered to take the couple into town on our bikes and they accepted the offer, so I took the female on the back of my bike and Finn took the male on his.

We hadn’t ridden these bikes with anyone else on the back of them, and it was a big workout for our bikes to take two people and their big bags riding uphill, but we made it. I had fun talking to the woman I was riding with and realized I hadn’t had much social interaction with women while traveling.

I thought about why I hadn’t hung out with more women on this trip. Upon reflection, I realize I find it more intimidating to approach women than men. Men almost always react positively to me talking to them or asking for help, even if it’s completely non-romantic. Women can sometimes be cold or neutral. Also, there are more male travellers so numbers-wise it makes sense that I’ve met more men out here. I appreciate interacting with females once in a while. It feels different, in a pleasant way. I will keep that in mind next time I subconsciously approach men instead of women.

We caught the ferry back to Halong City that afternoon and spent another night there before riding to Hanoi the next day.

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Northern Vietnam by Motorcycle

The motorcycle trip started off slowly. It took us a while to buy the warm clothes we needed and run some final errands in the city before we left Hanoi, and then on the way out of town we made a couple of wrong turns and had to check directions multiple times. After our first day of riding we made it to a small city called Thai Nguyen, directly north of Hanoi. It was not a beautiful ride. It had a suburban feel and a lot of traffic. We managed to find a hotel room for $10 and a restaurant that served delicious tofu and egg dishes with rice. I managed to communicate that I am vegetarian through pointing and hand signals since none of the staff spoke English. I had almost learned how to say “I eat vegetarian” and “without meat” in Vietnamese, but because I had trouble with the tones local people usually didn’t understand me.

The next day we had a late start because we slept in until 10, had a mechanical issue looked at, and bought headphones so I could listen to audiobooks while I ride. We didn’t get on the road until about noon, which proved to be an unwise decision because it got dark so early, at about 6pm. We also made a wrong turn at some point, so by the end of the day we had only made it about 85km. Once it was dark it was too dangerous to ride anymore. We were still 75km from Ba Bé National Park, where we had hoped to reach that day. It was a lot colder than we were used to and when I tried to order vegetarian food at a restaurant they didn’t understand me and I felt frustrated with everything. It wasn’t feeling like a fun trip anymore. I felt annoyed and grumpy.

Finn saw my frustration and helped solve the vegetarian communication issue by going online, translating a phrase explaining that I’m vegetarian and writing it on a little piece of paper for me. We decided we should wake up a lot earlier from then on to make the most of the sunlight and stop to check directions more often so that we didn’t get off track again. It wouldn’t be until a couple days later that we would discover the highway numbers were written the edge of the road signs, not visible from the front. After that discovery it was much easier to navigate.

The reason it was stressful to fall behind schedule was that our Vietnamese visas would expire on December 14, which gave us about a week to tour the north before getting to a Halong Bay, where a travel agency could extend our visas. The fact that it was so cold in the north also put pressure on us, because we knew we would want to get back into warmer weather soon.

The next day was much better. We made it to Ba Bé National Park in the morning where there was a big lake, limestone mountains and a farming village. We rode our bikes through the park in awe of the natural beauty. Some of the local families in the park invite visitors to stay with them as a “homestay”, so we found a nice family who charged us $7 for a room. They were just about to sit down for lunch when we arrived and they invited us to eat with them. They were excited to host us, even though we couldn’t communicate verbally with most of them. One family member, a 25 year old journalist, spoke broken English, so we could talk to him a bit. He and his sister shared some of their rice liquor with us, poured into shot glasses from a small plastic iced tea bottle. We each had about 5 shots, and at first it tasted horrible, but, like most liquor, it was easier after the first couple shots. We all shook hands after every shot and we weren’t sure if it was a Vietnamese thing to shake hands after taking a shot or just what these people do.
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After lunch, we hung out with the young man who spoke a bit of English and we used google translate to communicate better. He brought out his computer and we typed messages back and forth through the website. It didn’t always make perfect sense, but it was great that we could communicate. We told him that we were going to the waterfall, Ban Gioc, which is right beside the Chinese border, and he said, “No! In Vietnam, not China!” He thought we were saying the waterfall was in China. It was funny how suddenly insistent he was and he almost yelled when he was so calm otherwise. We agreed that it’s in Vietnam and he calmed down. I guess it’s a controversial point in the region.

After lunch, we rode our motorbikes around the park, marvelling at the bright green lake. We hiked a path that lead to a big cave. The little village, local homes and farms were cute and rustic. Most of the homes, including where we were staying, did not have any glass over the windows and the walls did not keep the wind out. Everyone wears big jackets at all times during winter.
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The next morning we woke up at 6am and explored more of the park before getting back on the highway. We road our motorbikes 7km on the tiny park road through the villages and hiked to a waterfall. We thought we woke up really early, but the family we stayed with and the villagers were already up and at work by the time we got on our bikes at about 630am. We left the park and started towards the biggest waterfall in Vietnam, called Ban Gioc.

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All day we rode through spectacular scenery. Many small, skinny, tree covered mountains pocked the landscape. Being from British Columba, I am used to seeing mountains, but these limestone formations were different because they were many, small and lumpy, stabbing upwards all over the place instead of the gigantic ones I’m used to seeing at home. The area is sparsely populated with agrarian communities. Chickens often cluck around on the roads and sometimes as we ride by them they panic and run right in front of our bikes, causing us to narrowly avoid hitting them. The chickens almost seemed suicidal by the number of times they jumped in front of us. We also passed lots of pigs, including herds of cute piglets. There were plenty of buffalo, cows, goats, horses, and a wild boar with horns coming out of it’s mouth that childishly reminded me of Pumba from The Lion King.

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By 4pm that day we had made it within 50km of the waterfall, Ban Gioc. We had accidentally taken a different road than we planned and had gone straight north instead of east, but it was okay because there was a northern route to Ban Gioc so we didn’t have to back track. With less than two hours of sunlight left, we thought we could make it to Dam Thuy, a town right beside the waterfall, and stay there for the night. We started on the northern “highway” that paralleled the China / Vietnam border, which was actually a bumpy dirt road. It was the roughest road we had ridden on yet, so we had to go a lot slower to make it over all the bumps and potholes. It started getting dark when we were in the middle of nowhere.

We past tiny villages, but none of them had hotels or guesthouses, of course. We delicately rode along bumpy mountain passes and stopped to admire the moon, which was deep orange that night, hanging above the silhouetted mountains. Our headlights were weak and got weaker when the engine wasn’t revving, so I constantly held the clutch lightly to keep the engine working and the headlight lit. I was scared of driving at night because the lack of light meant I couldn’t see obstacles until the last minute. We went slowly and cautiously and hoped we would come across a town soon.

Finn was ahead of me on a steeply inclined part of the road and got stuck in a big pothole. I was riding a bit too close behind him and didn’t see him stop until it was too late and I crashed into him and fell. Finn did not fall, but he saw me fall so he stopped to help. Because the road was so steep, he couldn’t hold his heavy bike in place so he fell too while trying to check if I was okay. Then we were both both struggling to lift up our bikes and get up the hill to flat ground. I was dropping my stuff and couldn’t see what I was doing in the dark. Finally we got to the top of the hill and checked our bodies and bikes for damage. We were fine except a few scratches and the bikes were fine except the right turn signal on Finn’s bike. We urgently needed to get off this ridiculously rough road in the dark. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything we could do but keep going. We had to find a place to sleep.

I suggested we approach random homes to offer a family money and signal that we want to sleep, but we were shy to ask without understanding the language. It was too cold, my hands were numb and I was hungry. Finally, at about 8pm, after two hours of riding in pitch dark, we came across a little town that had a couple hotels. We were finally somewhere. I was overcome with relief. Finn and I had both been mentally preparing to sleep in the cold outdoors. We checked the map and saw that we had traveled 30km since the last town, and it happened to be the roughest stretch of road we would travel in northern Vietnam. We vowed not to ride in the dark again.

None of the hotels we stayed in had heating, and they were very cold. By the end of each day of riding I was exhausted and couldn’t wait to have a hot shower and get under the thick blankets. At least there was hot water. The beds were hard and uncomfortable, but it was hard to pull myself out of their warmth into the cold air every morning. More than once I questioned my decision to visit this region when there are so many warm places in Southeast Asia. The climate made everything more stressful. It didn’t help that the zipper on the jacket I bought in Hanoi broke the day after I bought it, exposing me to the wind as I rode.

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We made it to Ban Gioc the next morning and spent about an hour hiking around and marvelling at the powerful waterfall. We were right on the border to China, as far north as we would go on our trip. We enjoyed a Chocopie, the Vietnamese version of a Wagonwheel, took a bunch of pictures, and then headed out. I was excited that we were going south and it would only get warmer from there. You may find my whining about the cold annoying if you’re reading this in Canada, but being outside all day on a motorbike and sleeping in a cold hotel room was getting to me.

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When we were on the road, riding through breathtaking scenery, it felt worth it to be in northern Vietnam, despite the cold. There were so few tourists coming through the small towns so people were thrilled to talk to us, even though we couldn’t understand what they were saying. We felt bad for not learning more Vietnamese, but we managed to communicate a little bit without words.

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One night, we sat down to eat at a pho restaurant when a couple local men greeted us, so we sat with them at their table. They were so friendly and we communicated with one another like it was a game of charades. The men kept pointing to things, the shot glasses, the soccer game on TV, the food, everything, and saying “Vietnam, Vietnam.” They shared with us a whole bottle of the same rice liquor we drank at the homestay. We must have had at least 6 small shots each. The men checked with us first that we weren’t getting on motorbikes after, and we assured them that we would be walking back to our hotel.

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It was convenient that there were motorcycle shops everywhere and it only cost a dollar or two to fix anything. When we had to fix something on our bikes we could call Phung from Phung Motorcycles, who sold us our bikes and ask him to explain the problem in Vietnamese to the mechanic over the phone. At one motorcycle repair shop the people were really nice and we hung out with them for a while after our bikes were fixed. It seemed like there were one or two mechanics who worked there, one of which was wearing a sharp business casual outfit with a collared shirt and pull over v-neck sweater. He was the fanciest dressed mechanic I’ve seen. A few other men were hanging around too, but it didn’t seem like they worked there, maybe they just like motorcycles. They shared some of that rice liquor with us too.

On the last day, we rode the final 80km to our destination, Halong Bay, and I was relieved to arrive somewhere warmer where we could relax for a couple days after the fantastic but exhausting motorcycle trip. In the rest of Vietnam there was delicious fresh coffee, but up north there was usually only the instant kind, which left me with powerful cravings that I was excited to satisfy. My butt was extremely sore from the long day before, when we rode about 240km, and all the days before that. It felt amazing to wash my clothes and lay down in a comfortable bed in a warm hotel room.

The Proud Owner of a Motorcycle

The only problem with traveling in Asia by bus and train is that you only end up going to tourist destinations and missing the little places in between. From Hanoi, Finn and I want to go north to explore the rice fields, mountains, lakes and rivers that I’ve heard are spectacular. We could have taken a bus to Sapa to do some trekking like most people do, but a more exciting way to explore is by motorcycle.

Some travellers we met in Dalat recommended a motorcycle shop in Hanoi where they bought their bikes called Phung Motorcycle, so Finn and I went there. We considered whether to buy or rent, what kind of bikes to get and whether to get two bikes or just one to share. We spent hours in the motorbike shop with Daniel, an employee at Phung’s Motorcycles, weighing our options.

We could probably sell our bikes when we were finished with them for within $100 of what we paid, so it would cost approximately the same to buy as it would to rent for 10 days for $10/day. But renting is less responsibility and the rental bikes are newer and more reliable. We didn’t know how long we would use the bikes because we still had to decide had whether to extend our Vietnamese visas since they would expire in a couple weeks and I was waiting on the replacement for my passport that was stolen in Ho Chi Minh. We figured buying would suit us better because then we could have the bikes as long as we wanted and not have to return them to Hanoi.

The manual motorbikes are better for the mountain roads, but they are intimidating to learn how to drive and they don’t have under-seat storage like the semi-automatics do. The manual motorbikes also look way cooler than the semi-automatics. We could both easily fit on one bike to save money, but two bikes would be much more comfortable and we both want to drive.

I was unsure about what route we should take and whether we could take the bikes across the border to Laos. Phung said we can probably take bikes across at certain crossings and we met an American who had just done it and said it went smoothly. After getting some lessons from some random Kiwi guys who offered to teach us to ride their manual motorbikes, we felt relatively confident in our abilities to drive manual bikes. Finally, we each bought 25 year old Honda Wins and good helmets for $290.

Phung helped us map a route north to Ba Bé National Park, almost up to the Chinese border, down the coast to Halong Bay and across to Laos. We will have to navigate the roads ourselves and negotiate what to eat and where to sleep with people in remote areas who don’t speak any English. If our bikes break down beyond repair we will have wasted all the money we spent on them. We could waste a whole bunch of time and money getting lost on country roads. At the last minute, as I was considering everything, I almost wanted to call the whole idea off because it will be much more work, but I think the extra work will be worth it.