I arrived to Bangkok via the overnight train and enjoyed every minute of the 16 hour journey! I had 12 hours to kill in Bangkok before my flight to Hanoi, so I took the BTS metro to Lumphini park first. I always make an effort to find parks in cities and walk around barefoot for a bit to feel connected to the land. I pottered around the lake in the park and watched the giant monitor lizards swim gracefully from rock to rock. After a few hours reading and people watching, I found a Starbucks to sit and grab some wifi. Sipping on my soy mocha frappe, I checked bank account balances to make sure I would be able to get to Hanoi hassle free before my friend Kelsey arrived the next day in Vietnam. You see, towards the end of the month every month my funds are always super tight and at that point, I had been missing my USA and UK bank card after losing them in Pai. So my money situation was a bit dire, but Kelsey had met up with my dad in Virginia when she went back home for part of the long October break and she was planning on bringing my new bank card and some cash my dad so lovingly put in a mini care package. So all I had to do was make sure I had enough money to get me to Vietnam and pay the $25 visa entrance fee at the airport. Well time was ticking and after counting up my baht, I realised in a shocked panic that I did not have enough baht to convert to the $25! I got angry with myself for leaving chiang mai without thinking of this. I used the cheapest mode of transportation from where I was to get to the Don Mueng airport in Bangkok, trains and buses until I was there, sweaty, nervous, panicked. Surely if I did not have the finances to get through immigration, this trip would implode. "Okay, I'll just wait at immigration at the airport all night for Kelsey to arrive if I have to." I came up with a plan A, B and C to keep my mind calm and my panic subdued. It was time to board the plane to Hanoi. And then I realised, I hadn't even converted the Baht I had to dollars! Why was I struggling so much mentally on this trip? As we boarded the plane, I sank into my seat, feeling helpless and wildly frustrated. As I sat, I took several deep breaths as my soul sister Hannah from Belfast would tell me to do. I thought of her intensely in that moment and how she always has an "everything will be okay. You will get through this" attitude. I don't know what possessed me to do it, but I turned to the woman in the seat next to me and asked her if she had pre-paid for her entrance visa to Vietnam or if she was planning to pay on arrival. She explained that Chile didn't have to pay a visa fee into Vietnam and she asked me where I was from and what was wrong. I explained my situation and she too reassured me that everything would be ok. Then a head in the seat directly in front of me turned and a tall gentleman began speaking to me. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but I have my credit card, but no one at the airport In Bangkok would let me withdraw money to get out for the Vietnam visa, so I'm in the same boat with you! If there's an ATM at the airport in Vietnam, I'll pay for yours too no problem at all! You don't want to come all this way for nothing!" He said and smiled. A wave of nauseous relief came over me and my cloud lifted. I thanked him immensely and secretly thanked Hannah in my thoughts for instilling me with her cool cucumber mentality. We landed in Hanoi and my heart began to palpitate again as myself and jake from the seat in front of me looked for an ATM. And there it was! Shiny and blue and beautiful! He smiled, gave me a high five and took out the money. We submitted our visa forms and had a relaxed chat as we waited for our passports back. I love people. Genuinely, when people show kindness and compassion it makes me so proud to be a human. I knew I would be paying this and so many other kind gestures forward because if I could fill another person with the sort of relief and love that I was feeling while waiting for my passport, then I would do it every time. We got our visas and agreed to meet up if we both were in Hanoi again at the same time before parting ways. I made my way to an exchange counter and turned my Baht to Dong, booked a shared taxi, and made my way to the hostel I was supposed to be meeting Kelsey and her friend Zoe the following day. After a hot shower and a few messages to my parents to let them know I arrived safely, I passed out for the night.
The next day, Kelsey arrived to our hostel and I gave her the biggest hug. She has become my side kick and overall soul companion in chiang mai since we work together and see each other every day all day. We exchanged stories from our October break and she gave me the package from my dad. I wasn't expecting this; he had packed a lovely card, my ATM card, cash, and my favourite thing of all: photos of my family and I. My heart throbbed. I missed my family. The images took me back to their visit while I was living in Belfast, my return trip home in March and sweet moments that were uniquely ours. My dad is THE best. Kelsey and I headed out on the town for a day of exploring. Zoe wouldn't be arriving until late that night, so we had plenty of time to get acquainted with this fascinating city. It was colourful and LOUD!! People honking for seemingly no reason, people yelling down streets, music blaring from various bars and shops. This was very different from Thailand, and the smells! I think it smells of incense and stale curry powder here if you can imagine that. We looked at a map and made our way to a lake that looked really close by. When we arrived to the lake, we realised that this was very much the hub to the city. Buskers played mandolins and other instruments, women carrying heavy baskets of snacks approached, cyclos (a chariot pushed by a man bicycling behind you) whizzed by. We beamed and headed to the lake to take a silly selfie, but as we sat on the ledge of the lake, groups of young people kept approaching us to practice their English! This definitely doesn't happen in Thailand! We obliged and group after group came up to interview us about our lives in Thailand and America. We met some seriously interesting people in that impromptu hour and a half! After we said our goodbyes, we walked on and watched the sun set behind the bridge on the lake. We made our way back to the hostel and got ready for a night out on the town. Bars are more or less the same all over the world, so we saw what you would expect to see, bright lights, loud music, club girls trying to corral people into their establishments, more tourist-seeking buskers and so on. After a few drinks and cool conversations with strangers, we headed back to our hostel. Zoe had arrived and we introduced ourselves before I snuck away upstairs to pass out.
The next morning, I had a rough morning as my blood sugar dropped in the middle of the night and I woke up to Kelsey feeding me Oreos. I hate when this sort of thing happens (seems more and more out here in Asia these days) but in that moment she was feeding me with such grace and giggling at me squeaking with delight and horizontal dancing as she fed my face. Low blood sugars make you do weird things. We both began to laugh as my blood sugar started to climb. I quickly recovered, showered and then met up with Kelsey and Zoe downstairs. I was properly able to meet Zoe this time and I adored her aura! She is from South Africa and had been teaching in Thailand for the past year which is how she met Kelsey before. the three of us headed out to the city to find cheap package deals for Sapa and Halong Bay. We booked our trip and realised we had a few hours to walk around before our bus left. We ate a delicious Vietnamese lunch where I had vegan Pho (pronounced like fuh) for the first time! It was delicious and filling! We spoke of our experiences in Thailand and I asked Zoe tons of questions about South Africa. I was learning so much about a place I never knew a lot about. After grabbing a glass of wine and laughing for a good while on a rooftop cafe, we headed back to the hostel to get picked up for Sapa. The buses were decked out with bunk beds and blankets which I wasn't expecting for a 6 hour drive. I made a nest for myself in a bottom bunk and fell asleep. We woke up in Sapa, a mountain town that is often foggy and VERY chilly! Luckily I had bought a coat in Hanoi because this was the first time I had felt that cold in the past...year! I forgot that that was even a feeling! We were taken to a lodge where we got free breakfast and rain boots to prepare for a day of trekking. The actual town of Sapa reminded me of a ski lodge in Canada on the off season with no snow. The architecture was very rustic, wooden, cabin-y and picturesque. We put on our Wellies and joined a group of two couples to begin the trek. Our guide was named Moon, a gorgeous and wildly intellectual 17 year old. I couldn't get over how beautiful she was, her skin was the most copper, gold Id ever seen and she knew 6 languages fluently just from living in her tribal village and working with so many tourists. We followed Moon as she led us down several hills and gardens. The terrain began to change and the stiff ground turned to mud! We slid and squashed through forests (with pine trees!) and jungle landscapes, passing water filled rice paddies and more rolling hills. Our group consisted of a couple from the Netherlands and a couple from Canada, we all made our way at our own pace, talking and sharing travel experiences. I zoned out and began snapping photos of every breathtaking thing I saw; wild pigs, women in tribal clothes carrying cloth-wrapped babies on their backs, wild water buffalo, greenery, misty mystique. I don't think I can ever describe the landscape to do it justice! Everything was magical like a Vietnamese fairy tale enchanted forest back drop. We trekked for hours, sweating and covered in mud before arriving to one of the many native tribe villages. We saw the crowds of tourists in their trekking groups gathered in a crowed pavilion where lunch was being served. The women of that village swarmed around us as we sat trying to eat our meals. My heart began to race, we couldn't even enjoy the meal because these women would not let up. Bags were shoved in our faces, scarves were held up, bracelets, nick knacks, it was all a bit much. We lowered our eyes and tried to finish our food. Kelsey, Zoe and I caved and paid for one thing each as clearly these women wouldn't leave us be until we obliged. This aspect of the trip (the persistent Vietnamese women selling goods) really helped me to look at my own way of pushing things on people. I feel like I have always been persistent, some may describe it as unbearably so; but it wasn't until I felt the utter discomfort with being squawked at by these strangers that I realised there's a point where persistence for the point of persuasion isn't okay. This was a jarring realisation, but as I thought more about my own life and interactions I've had, I was grateful for the learning experience. After lunch, we trekked on until we reached our homestay on the mountain. The homestay we arrived at was gorgeous! We stayed with a family that brought us into their kitchen to cook Vietnamese food; spring rolls, fried tofu, and yummy veg. We were offered 'Happy water' post dinner and drank up as we sang karaoke in the house's living room. After belting out more songs than any of us had planned, we fell asleep awaiting tomorrow's trek and a return to Hanoi.
After returning to Hanoi, the three of us got ready for our trip to Halong Bay. I was running late of course and the bus driver was NOT happy. Like screaming at me in Vietnamese and cursing our names. It made me realise the importance of being punctual (many reminders but this one really hit me) and also the importance of keeping your cool whilst things around you implode. We drove for three hours to Halong Bay and as we stepped off the bus, the briney air hovered around me. I love the sea. It is the one place I always feel at peace. We boarded our boat where we would be sleeping for the night and were given room keys to our cozy cabin. While on the boat, I met a man from Italy named Davide who was really enjoyable to talk to. We decided to share a kayak and row along the bay and Kelsey and Zoe shared a boat as well. Davide was such a good sport answering all my questions about Italy (a place I have never been to but am thinking of moving to after Thailand), we chatted about politics, religion, immigration, Valentino Rossi, food, travel, and so much more. As the sun began to set, we rowed back to the big boat and jumped off the docks into the bay for a swim. The water was perfectly salty and I floated along looking at the sky above. 'How did I get here? To a life that continually fills me with wonder and awe?' I asked myself as the fishes jutted in and out of my legs. We got back on the boat and and had a lovely dinner before happy hour. The boat had a karaoke machine and foosball table which Kelsey and I enjoyed thoroughly while very tipsy. We played a few games with the captain of the boat who steered with his feet. After lovely late night chats with the ladies in our cabin and a few knocks at the door to, "be quiet", we headed to sleep. The next morning, I was the only one to jump into the water for a morning swim and it left me feeling re-energised, fresh and excited for the next activity. We all climbed into these small bowl-looking boats that was rowed by a gentleman who whistled and sang Vietnamese songs. I wanted to sit in silence and just take it all in. This landscape was like nothing I had seen before. We got rowed through caves, jungle mountains and the sunniest of spots on the bay before heading back to the boat. Once back aboard, we made lunch for ourselves on the boat and packed our things to get ready to go. Halong Bay was a little message sent to me from the universe. I saw how important it was for me to go and see Italy finally. Before it would have been too early. The moment must not have been right, and I must trust that. When we arrived back to Hanoi, we had one last night where the three of us bought gloriously obnoxious shirts and went out for drinks. I was woken up the next morning by the hostel worker to catch my van to the airport. And just like that, this trip was over.
Friendships like those with Kelsey and the other people I have met in Chiang Mai have really helped me to focus on what's really important. I love feeding these connections because time spent with any of my friends is something that makes me feel so very full.
With the holidays coming up, I'm excited to see what other travels, adventures, and situations I get myself into.
Until next time, follow that feeling,