We just embarked on our 14-hour overnight train ride from Ninh Binh, Vietnam, to Hoi An. From the mountains to the coast, you could say. It’s a bumpy ride, there’s a baby screaming under us (Lindsey and I have the top bunks), and the smell coming from the bathroom is indescribable. And no, it’s not like fruity hand soap. But by morning we will have travelled essentially half of Vietnam, and for only $39.
This really feels like the first time we’ve had over the last week to sit, think, and write (besides attempted sleep and complaining, there’s really not much to do on an overnight train). Although our homestay in Ninh Binh was the definition of relaxation, I spent our time lounging in a hammock, riding a bicycle, or eating copious amounts of pho and mango smoothies, not wanting to do anything that felt remotely like ‘work.’
Before our rustic stay in the bamboo bungalow, we had pretty much been on the go. My body seemed to take longer to adjust than my travel partner’s. We were greeted immediately by hot, muggy air when we landed at 11 PM in Bangkok last week after 29 hours of travel, and my first couple days consisted more of jet lag and dehydration than the fun stuff.
I was able to shake it in time for Songkran Festival, the Thai New Year celebration. Being right by Khao San Road for that event was one of those serendipitous things that you don’t plan, but ends up being such a significant part of your experience in a place. Lindsey and I were right in the middle of the chaos and fun, which consisted of water guns, being covered in powder by the locals, and by nighttime, a shoulder to shoulder crowd exuding energy and joy. I have never seen so many people together, all dancing and laughing like young children.
We flew from Bangkok to Hanoi, Vietnam after a couple days, where we easily entered the country and had a shuttle to our hostel waiting for us. I had been pretty anxious about the whole procedure, but our e-visa that we purchased ahead of time made everything go so smoothly. As far as our ride in… well, if I thought Bangkok traffic was crazy, nothing could prepare me for this. As far as I can tell, there’s literally no method to the madness of driving here. Traffic lights are more suggestions than law, everyone’s driving a different directions, and there aren’t lines on the road. That being said, everyone seems to be pretty good drivers, and able to work around each other. Through a language of honking and quick maneuvering, we always make it to where we need to go (me:laughing nervously and nauseated, my driver: unfazed).
Crossing the street by foot is always like a game of Frogger. The method that Lindsey and I first demonstrated was to wait for a gap in traffic and then walk/run quickly across. That was the wrong method. So was closing our eyes. We were told that in places like Hanoi, where motor bikes are almost as prevalent as people, it’s best to just walk slowly across and with confidence, so that the bikers can move around you. We were told they probably won’t stop or slow down for you, but they will try to avoid hitting you.
It seems that everyone gets around by motorbike. We saw people transporting goods (even a dead goat) by bike, up to 5 people piled on one, little kids. It was also our only option to get from the little bus stop we were dropped off at to our homestay, so we strapped helmets on and took off by motor taxi. In such a short amount of time, I’ve already gotten so much more used to them whizzing by as you’re walking or stopped at a street food vendor.
The food. I heard it was going to be good before we came, but you can’t really capture it. There were so many air conditioned restaurants in Bangkok, playing trendy music, and with menus in English. That caught our attention for a while, as it was so comfortable and still pretty cheap, but then we decided to take the plunge into some of the best stuff I’ve ever had. The street food. In Hanoi, we simply walked around until we saw locals huddled around a table in plastic stools, chowing down to noodles or meat on sticks. Although I felt a little awkward at first, we quickly discovered how easy it is to communicate with gestures and key phrases. A couple times, we didn’t even know what we were ordered, yet we were always brought something delicious. One of my favorite times being when we were looking for pad Thai, instead sat down at a fruit dessert joint, had no idea what to get, and were brought an assortment of colorful fruit and coconut yogurt. When we handed the money over, the woman immediately gave us back half, motioning that we had given too much. I think Lindsey and I were both just a little thrown off that we could eat all of that for around 50 cents a piece. I’ve eaten my weight in curry, spring rolls, pho, every noodle dish you could imagine, fresh fruit, basa, and my favorite of all…. Vietnamese coffee. If you have any recommendations or suggestions, please get a hold of me. Can you tell I like food?
I just wanted to give a little update about where we are and our adventures so far. We will be in Hoi An the next couple days, eating Banh Mi (at the same spot Anthony Bourdain said had the best in the world), taking cooking classes, and exploring the ancient town.