Sabbatical Week 4 - Cat Ba Island, Hanoi, Da Nang, and Seoul

I intentionally left my last week of sabbatical open-ended and didn’t make any plans beforehand. I was enjoying the beaches and sunsets at Cat Ba Island, so I decided to stay there for a couple more days.

I booked a kayak tour for the morning. I ended up being the only one who booked, so I got a private tour. The guide was really personable and we talked for several hours. He had grown up in the area and had been kayaking the bay since he was a kid. I had so many questions about what life was like on the floating villages, and we talked about that for awhile. He pointed out the karsts that had names, one of which was Turtle Island, aptly named. We got pretty close to some of the oyster farms, which made me better appreciate the scale of the operation. They covered a huge area where they were set up. We stopped a couple times, once to pick up some wild oysters he said he was going to cook for his family, and another time at a karst with a small beach to take a quick dip in the water. He said he did both kayak and multi-day hiking tours, which seemed like a pretty strenuous line of work, but he said he really enjoyed it.

Back at Quiri, I grabbed a quick shower and checked out of the hotel. I’d decided to switched to staying at a hostel called Secret Garden because I liked the artsy aesthetic and I wanted to meet some people. The host at Quiri was super friendly and gave me a ride up the hill to the hostel with my luggage, which was a huge help. It was too close to justify calling a taxi, but just far enough away to be a pain in the ass to lug my stuff to.

After checking in, I read by the pool for a bit. I talked with a woman named Alina who was sitting next to me. She was from Holland and had just completed a rotation as a nurse in a neonatal unit in southern Vietnam. She was here on a 90-day visa and using up the last 30 days to explore.

In the late afternoon, Andy and I checked out Tung Thu Beach, a less crowded beach that was more popular with the locals than the one I’d been going to. On the walk over, we passed some people playing volleyball, which had apparently become really popular. I didn’t remember that from 23 years ago; back then, soccer seemed to have that level of popularity here. There were no lockers at this beach, but it wasn’t crowded. We piled our stuff on a small tarp Andy had brought and got in the water. The water ended up being pretty dirty, so we didn’t stay too long. Andy’s hostel was just up the road from mine, so we agreed to meet for happy hour after rinsing off.

Happy hour at Secret Garden was really chill. By 5 pm, probably a dozen people were hanging out at the tables drinking beer. Waiting for Andy to arrive, I started talking to two women, Maddie and Chelsea. They were both in their early 20s and solo-traveling through Vietnam. They mentioned that they’d connected on the Hostelworld app before arriving. As someone who usually stayed in hotels, I’d never heard of this chat feature of that app and thought it was brilliant. Great way to connect with fellow travelers before you arrive somewhere. I was also struck by the fact that so many women were solo-traveling here. I read later that Vietnam is one of the safest places in Southeast Asia, with violent crime being almost non-existent.

After Andy arrived, we all went to dinner at “Yummy 2” restaurant just down the road. It was a favorite of Andy and mine, and lived up to its name. Apparently there’s a Yummy 1 just up the road. I also had read some reviews of people getting food poisoning at Secret Garden, so I wanted to play it safe.

After dinner, we all split up to go to our separate hostels, as everyone else had early mornings.
I listened to the live music at Secret Garden for a bit, then turned in. I was just winding down, brushing my teeth, when I noticed a couple massive, hairy legs sticking out from under the sink. “Oh fuck me,” I said out loud. I slowly peeked under to find the biggest, scariest-looking spider I’d ever seen. I don’t even have a problem with spiders. I usually put them in tupperware and set them free when I find them in my house. But this thing was a monster. Now wide-awake, I started Googling everything I could. I quickly assessed that it was a huntsman. Harmless to humans, but with a painful bite.

Still, I wasn’t keen on sharing a bathroom with it. I grabbed the hose from the shower and tried to spray the spider, but the water pressure was pathetic. The spider shook the water off its legs, crawled out from under the sink, made its way over to the toilet, and vanished behind it.

Well, fuck. I closed the bathroom door and tried to get some rest. I ended up sleeping really fitfully; it was hot in the room, I had to pee but didn’t dare, and my throat was scratchy. I woke up at 4 am with a full-blown cold to the sound of a rooster crowing. I gave up on getting back to sleep and read for a bit.

The spider had relocated to the ceiling in a corner opposite the toilet, so I felt safe peeing, at long last. I still watched it warily the whole time.

At noon, I caught the bus to Hanoi. I checked into the Scent Premium again because I’d liked it last time I was there. I spent the next couple days in Hanoi.

Some highlights:

  • The Old Quarter shuts down from Friday through Sunday to car traffic. It was really fun to see families out and about there, with kids driving around small electric cars, and live music at night.
  • Visiting Train Street. The main part of Train Street is closed to tourists, but if you walk to the far side of it, there are coffee shops you can watch the train from. I ordered some egg coffee and waited for the train to arrive. It was crazy how close it got.
  • Seeing a water puppet show. This was suprisingly really cool. It was a great way to take in some traditional Vietnamese stories. Also, have you ever seen a regular puppet show with fireworks? I think not.
  • Buying all of the fake North Face and Patagonia bags I could find. I’m really curious which factory/supply chain makes these, because they’re uncanny.
  • Getting a massage. It was much needed after lugging my stuff around everywhere.

I also visited Hoa Lo Prison, where John McCain was a POW during the war. That was a pretty fascinating experience. There were a bunch of exhibits of French brutality toward the Vietnamese and stories of heroic Vietnamese prison breaks. But when you get to the section on the Vietnam War, it’s totally whitewashed. They have a bunch of photos of POWs playing chess, smiling, and getting free medical care. It was pretty surreal. I’m pretty sure John McCain not being able to raise his arm above shoulder level wasn’t from a chess injury. But the whole thing got me questioning areas where Americans whitewash our museums and leave stuff out. Where I landed was that we really don’t talk much about Japanese Internment or how horrific it was that we used atomic weapons on civilians twice.

I thought about visiting Angkor Wat, but the forecast for the next several days showed extreme heat and lightning storms, so I decided to save that for another trip.

I flew back to Da Nang for my last few days in Vietnam. I booked a room at the M92 Hotel, which was just a few blocks from the beach. The first thing I did after I arrived was walk to the beach. I was blown away by how much Da Nang had changed since we were here in 2000. Back then, the beach was quiet and serene, sprinkled with fishing boats. Now, it felt like Vegas, with massive hotels and resorts lining the beach and crowds of people everywhere. I felt lucky to have experienced it before it had become so commercial. I walked down the beach for a bit, trying to spot anything that looked familiar. I Googled our old hotel, the Tourane, but nothing turned up. It seemed to be long gone. At one point, I thought I found a place that looked like where it used to be, but it was hard to tell.

My Khe Beach: Then and now

May 28: Da Nang

I woke up pretty early, had a light breakfast at the hotel, and then took a long walk on the beach. It was relatively quiet compared to the evening before; the massive crowds of people were gone. There was a corporate team-building retreat of some sort happening at the part of the beach where I entered from the road, which served as a useful landmark. Along the walk, I spotted a few jellyfish and starfish in the water and some fishermen setting up their boats for the day.

After getting back from the beach, I caught a taxi to the Linh Ung Pagoda. It features a massive statue of Lady Buddha (the tallest one in Vietnam) and I remembered seeing it from the beach as a kid and being curious about it. I’d also read that there were sometimes monkeys that roamed the grounds. When I got there, I spent maybe 20% of my time exploring the complex and 80% of the time watching the monkeys and people interacting.

The monkeys were incredibly bold and very comfortable with people. I watched them steal at least a dozen popsicles, often by running up and grabbing them out of people’s hands. This was by no means unwitting on the part of the people; many of them walked up with half-eaten popsicles in hand and laughed when the monkeys took them. The whole spectacle was simultaneously fascinating and sad. There were signs everywhere to not feed the animals, and the monkeys were probably horribly diabetic. I wished that they wouldn’t sell ice cream at all so close to the monkeys, and at the very least to have a security guard to enforce the rules. The trash cans were also completely open, and I also watched several monkeys raid those. For all of the things I love about Vietnam, they still don’t have a very good culture around how they treat animals. I know there are efforts being made to increase conservation, and I hope that continues to progress. I read and recommend this NYT article called Vietnam’s Empty Forests for more context on that.

On a funnier note, I was walking toward the temple entrance when I heard a loud slap on the ground. I glanced down just in time to see that a huge snake had fallen out of a tree and was slithering towards a boy. “Snake!” I yelled. The kid jumped like 3 feet in the air and the snake darted off under a trash can. Then we both looked at each other and busted up laughing.

I caught a cab to the orphanage where we had adopted Julie. Or at least I hoped it was still an orphanage. I had found a picture of an address in one of our old photos and looked it up. When I got there, I recognized it immediately. The entrance was blocked by a gate, however. I was so curious to see what it was like now and how it had changed, but I felt uncomfortable just walking in the gate even though it wasn’t locked. I tried calling the phone number listed on Google Maps. No answer. I noticed a doorbell and rang that. A very confused elderly woman at the house next door answered, clearly having just awoken from her nap. I apologized profusely. After a few minutes, I gave up and walked to a nearby Vietnam War-themed coffee shop. I still found it so strange that the war is used as an aesthetic in so many places here, given how brutal it was. I remembered what my dad had said about 2/3 of the current population being born after the war. Maybe that explains at least some of the phenomenon.

I caught a cab to the Han Market. It was very crowded, hot, and I was still fighting my cold, so I didn’t stay too long. I wandered around the area in search of banh mi. There seems to be a siesta culture to some degree here, where a lot of restaurants shut down during the heat of the day and reopen in the evenings, so I had kind of a hard time finding anything. Finally I stumbled across a couple who had a cart and ordered from them.

I wandered across the dragon bridge to walk off lunch. It was brutally hot out. I decided to just catch a Grab back to my hotel, crank the AC, and play Zelda for a few hours. I popped back out of the hotel around 7 pm to grab dinner. Thus far, I wasn’t very impressed with the food in Da Nang; it was mostly either fine dining and resorts, with not a lot of really good local spots that I was able to track down. I went to get pho at a place across the river near the dragon bridge. This was strategic, as it was a Sunday, when the bridge shuts down to breathe fire. Yes, you read that right. They bridge has giant flamethrowers and water hoses built in, and every week at 9 pm on Saturday and Sunday, hundreds of people gather to watch the dragon shoot fire and water.

It was delightfully quirky and exceeded even my high expectations. I stood probably 100 feet away and could still feel the intense heat of the flames. When it shot water, kids ran around in it. It felt like such a communal, unifying event for the city. It was basically a big block party. Even the boats on the river pull up near the bridge to view it. It made me wish that Portland had some kind of weekly event like this. Maybe really we just need to convert one of our 11 bridges into a dragon 🤷‍♂️🐲.

Afterwards, I wandered around the night market, which was also really entertaining. There was such a huge variety of things for sale, everything from selfie sticks to knockoff Legos to fresh seafood. One vendor was singing karaoke to promote her booth.

May 29: Ba Na Hills

My hotel arranged a driver for Ba Na for early this morning. It was a 45-minute drive out to the cable car station through some beautiful lush jungle.

This place was a BLAST. I shared a cable car up with this really fun group of friends who were a mix of doctors and surgeons. They had gone to medical school together and were out here for the day. They said it was a two-hour drive to Ba Na from where they lived. They spoke very little English, but we got by with passing the translator app back and forth. I ended up spending the entire day with them.

Ba Na Hills is this amusement park that’s a mashup of Buddhism, Harry Potter, Disney, Jurassic Park, with a French Village thrown in there for good measure. It was as if someone with severe ADHD in a place with no copyright laws suddenly inherited a billion dollars, dropped some acid, and built a theme park in the jungle. And somehow it worked. It was incredibly entertaining and a highlight of the trip when I look back on it.

At the entrance, there’s this Instagram-famous bridge held up by Buddha hands.