Category Archives: Vietnam

When You Fall off Your Bike…

Around here no one speaks English. Not a word, not hello, not goodbye. Not north, not south, not hospital.

So when I crash my bike going around a corner through the sand that is the road it is hard to translate what we need. What needs to be done.

Bikes parked along the road.
Bikes parked along the road.

I remember seeing Jordan coming sprinting from his bike pulled over ahead to pull me out from under mine, I remember being in pain trying to get up. I don’t remember how everyone else got to me, but soon everyone is around. They get my bike out from the middle of the sand patch that stands for a road and slowly I try to drag myself up and to the edge. I can’t walk.

We understand the hand gestures from the family whose store is right next to the sandpit to carry me down the hill to their house. The guys, Jordan and Ian, loop two arms around me and I am half carried to a chair where they set me down and tell me to put my foot up. The woman starts spraying my cuts with hydrogen peroxide and the man dabs around my ankle with some green oil with Chinese symbols on the bottle.

It feels like the oil is helping but I can’t tell if that is in my head.

My head. My head is spinning and thick. From shock. It is hard to get words out but I also don’t need so many words to get across what I need. I point to a spot on my ankle, I try turning it different ways. I attempt to curl my toes. I can curl my toes, I can’t move the ankle though. I can’t stand up on it. It hurts and it hurts, and there are some things that cross language barriers, and one of those is that I need to get to a hospital. I don’t fully understand what happens around me as it does. I drink the water I am supposed to slowly. I try to stop crying. I keep crying, because the pain really won’t go away. It keeps coming back in waves to replenish the supply of tears coming down.

We need to go to a hospital.

Views of the ocean from the road.
Views of the ocean from the road.

The drive today was beautiful. The scenery was amazing. The roads were incredible. Well, until they weren’t. We drove through the mountains and across rivers and wetlands. We slowed down for trucks and for tractors and for small towns that we would drive through with their groups of children running along the road to shout at us hello. We drove through all the colors you could imagine. Oranges and purples and blues making up the mountains in the distance, Greys and browns and yellow ochre dotting the ground with trees and bushes and little white flowers to accent it all. The speed was exhilarating, the sun was shining down and it was the perfect day and the perfect place to drive.

It was so perfect until it wasn’t.

The roads switched between beautifully paved ones racing through the scenery, past the mountains and the rivers and wetlands, to small ones filled with potholes and rocks. Ones still in the middle of being constructed, and ones that were still gravel or rocks. Or sand. Ones that weren’t roads at all, but connected the real roads together, and helped to map the course between the small towns and the larger towns and the different colors dotting the skyline.

The mountains, the rivers.
The mountains, the rivers.

Soon I am brought to a Vietnamese hospital. It is bare, so bare, but there is a nurse there who speaks some English, and she walks with me to the x-rays where they take pictures of my ankle. They try to take x-rays of my knee, too, which is wrapped in napkins from where the woman had treated it, but I tell them that it is fine, just bruised and cut, and that what really needs to be looked at is my ankle.  He takes the x-rays, looks at them, convinces me that it is not broken, and after some haggling I pay them 100,000 dong (~$5) and get my ankle wrapped, and my cuts cleaned up. I am lifted onto the back of a motorbike, and we go to a hotel for the night. There is no way we are making it to Nha Trang today, and it is debatable if I will even keep driving south.

I want to keep driving, though.

It is already day three of our drive. It was supposed to take two days to drive from Hoi An to Nha Trang, but with all of the stops we have made, including two hospital visits (mine plus another cover-up hospital visit when Jordan got into a smaller accident with a local), and some falls (Kateryna in sand, too, Ian and Joe when they ran into each other while stopping) and lots of stops for photos, it is taking what now looks like four days to get to our immediate destination.

Kateryna and me, pre-falls
Kateryna and me, pre-falls
Post-falls: Kateryna with her scraped up knee, me with my knee and sprained ankle (and hospital wheel chair)
Post-falls: Kateryna with her scraped up knee, me with my cut up knee and sprained ankle (and hospital wheel chair)





So in the morning I get up, I try to put weight on my foot, and I find I can limp along. It hurts, but if I take some drugs and bear through it I figure I should be fine to drive. I don’t use my feet to drive my bike, after all, so I figure there should be no reason for me not to keep biking. I also know that if I don’t get back on my bike in this town then I will stay scared of driving. And I don’t want to be scared of driving. So I go for a test drive in a circle, prove to Kateryna that I am able to drive, and we go.

Getting back on the bike is easy, and it is also difficult. Starting it initially is scary. I don’t completely trust my hands and my legs to do what I need them to. I don’t trust my balance, and I don’t trust my mind to keep my bike steady. On the good roads, though, I feel fine. It is not difficult, it is fun, it is almost as fun as it was before. But soon we hit the bad roads, the ones that are still in the middle of being paved, and the large patches of gravel. All the things that need to be negotiated. The roads that bump along and scare me. Those are harder to navigate because I doubt myself on them. I keep remembering that I fell once on rough terrain, so what is keeping me from falling again? It is hard to stay steady, and it is hard to go fast.

Kateryna tells me multiple times that it is just not going to work if I keep going this slowly. The boys wont wait up, the whole group wont be able to wait up. Something is going to change, and that is going to have to be my speed.

And so, slowly, I start getting myself to go faster. It is scary: it is scary going over the rough patches, and it hurts, too, when my bike bumps against my ankle. I am slightly less sure of my handling of the bike around turns and sharp corners, and I am worried I am going to make a stupid mistake.

I do make mistakes. I go through potholes I could have avoided, I stay in a spot of the lane I didn’t need to. It takes a little bit for me to hold all the pieces of driving together in my mind in the same way I was doing before. But I am driving, and that is what matters to me. It hurts, in my ankle, and when I bend my knee, but I am going. And I force my bike up to high speeds again, like I was doing before, and I make the turns safely again, like I was doing before, and little by little we make our way to our destination, to Nha Trang. And slowly slowly my cuts and my sprained ankle are doing better and better to heal.



In the Bermuda Triangle

I am so hungry. I have this pit in the bottom of my stomach because every time I start to eat I get full too soon to really fill it up.

It has been accumulating for days now. Maybe weeks. I have no real sense of time here, so I don’t know how long I have been hungry. I don’t know what day it is or what month or what week. I forget sometimes where I am, what country, what city, because they all start to blend together after a time. One city and then the next, one cuisine and currency and language follows the next.

The hunger is a side effect of traveling. Well, for me, of taking malarone. I know it does this to me, makes me lose my appetite, but I have it and I was told to take it and I am paranoid of getting sick from all the bug bites that I get every day, so I don’t stop taking it. I don’t stop taking it and I learn to eat as much as I can before giving the rest of my meal to the guys that I am traveling with. That is one of the perks of traveling with guys: they are always happy to finish my meal when I cant, so I feel less bad about not finishing my food.

Lunch: rice, pork, veggies and egg!
Lunch: rice, pork, veggies and egg!

There are moments while traveling where I forget what real life is. Where I forget that I have a home and friends and family besides the bed that I am renting in an eight-person dorm and the people that I am traveling with. I forget what I did before, what I am doing after, what month it is, what year. I forget how old I am and where I come from, all I know is that I am on the road and I have been for months and I will be for months to come.

It is a calm feeling, but confusing.

The empty, yet beautiful, beach in Vietnam
The empty, yet beautiful, beach in Vietnam

But then we rent motorbikes and make our way down the coast of Vietnam from Hue to Hoi An and it is the most beautiful and exhilarating things that I have ever done. And I am giddy with the adrenaline brought on by the speed and the wind swirling around and against me and the views that pass me by as we make our way from the jungles and the rice paddies to the mountains and the stunningly white sandy beaches and the views of the trains weaving their way through the valleys at the base of it all.

And while we are doing this I forget how hungry I am just for the time being. And everything else slips away from me. It is me and this country and the wind on my back. It is the sun when we stop, beating down on my bare shoulders. It is the bright greens and blues and browns lining the view. It is the curves as the road hugs the mountain and the sound of my bike as we climb higher and higher over the pass. And it is the speed as we race along the straight city highways, going faster and faster until we can’t go any more and we finally stop.

From left to right: Jordan, Kateryna, me, Stephen, and Ian
From left to right: Jordan, Kateryna, me, Stephen, and Ian

When we stop this time it is just for one night in Hoi An. One night turns into two, though, and then three and then four as we lie by the pool in the sun, taking the time to relax in a sort of vacation and holiday from the traveling.

It is easy to stay in Hoi An. Everyone who comes to the hotel there (the Sunflower Hotel, the only hostel in town, and where all of the backpackers end up staying) stays for longer than they mean. Kateryna refers to it as the Bermuda triangle. Because everything is lost there. Days, time, everything. Every morning we eat the buffet breakfast before going and sitting by the pool and promising that we are going to do something that day. Instead though we end up lying by the pool, meeting new friends, soaking up the sun, reading our books. And we leave again when the sun leaves and we go to eat.

The other thing we do is we go out and we buy motorbikes. Because we can’t get over how beautiful the drive from Hue to Hoi An was, and so we are blaming staying in Hoi An for so long on the fact that it is taking us time to buy the motorbikes, and we cannot leave until we do.

And so when we finally leave Hoi An we have lost more days, again, and the week has started to fly by, again. The time here gets lost into the sinkhole of traveling, and once again we will head off to a new city, to new things, to new people, but also to the same people who are traveling in the same direction. And new meals and new foods and new sites. And more days flying by, cities and countries flying by and getting lost in the Bermuda Triangle of traveling.

The mountains, the coast

On the Night Bus

We have become so used to them, to sleeping in the little bunks while trying to ignore the rocking and the honking and the bright lights being turned on at the oddest times. They are just part of the experience. The night buses, that is. We all have the stories that we can pull out about the worst one that we ever took.

Hanoi, from by the lake.
Hanoi, from by the lake.

Like the one this past week where we were the only white people on the twenty-five hour bus ride from Vientiane to Hanoi. And we were shuffled into the back seats of the small Vietnamese sleeper bus. The back seats are the ones that are all connected together, so instead of getting your own bunk you are in a little crawl space with three other people, and three above you. Of course, with there being six of us this worked out perfectly, and we spent the evening watching movies and drinking the alcohol that we had brought from Vientiane and getting yelled at by the Asians on the bus in front of us.

Or the time that Stephen and I got stuck in the Gorakhpur train station for twenty two hours overnight, and then took the lowest class of the Indian train fifteen hours across the country from Gorakhpur to Delhi. For us that is our sleeper train horror story.

But it nearly gets beat by the one where we couldn’t get tickets for actual seats on the bus from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang and instead bought tickets to get to sit in the aisle. And we spent the night moving from the rickety chairs in the aisle to bouncing around on the floor and sleeping on giant bags of rice that were there to finally finding seats.

The Temple of Literature, in Hanoi
The Temple of Literature, in Hanoi

Before getting on the bus we go out and we find sandwiches or Oreos or crackers. Or chocolate. Green tea for me, because I like something sweet to drink sometimes. Babybell cheeses to munch on over the course of the ride: Kateryna gets a roll with hers so that she can really make a good sandwich, and she tries to buy a can of tuna, too, but I tell her that it is going to make the bus smell and it is probably not the best idea.

I carry melatonin in my bottle of Advil, and take a couple when I get on the bus. It doesn’t always work, but it makes me feel like I am making an effort to really get some good sleep. I give them out to the others, too, sometimes, and we see whom it works on and whom it doesn’t. Ian, our newest travel companion, brings some Valium, and when it isn’t working takes another.

When the drugs do work I get the best sleep I have gotten in a few nights, the dim lighting and gentle rocking forcing me to sleep early and not to stay up later than I need to. When it doesn’t work we are groggy in the morning when we get into the new city in the early morning light and wave down a tuktuk or a cab to take us into the center of town to where a hostel is, and where we hope that they will let us take a nap for a little bit until it is a normal time of day and we can get up again and eat some new foods and explore the new city that the bus transported us to overnight.

The cathedral around the corner from our hostel in Hanoi
The cathedral around the corner from our hostel in Hanoi

On this bus we weren’t lucky enough to get the back seats so we are all spread around the bus, curled up in our own spaces. Jordan and I are in seats towards the front, Kateryna and Stephen are in two of the seats at the back, Ian is in another seat in the back next to a couple. Paul and Lorie, our Romanian buddies, have moved ahead of us because they need to get back to Bangkok soon for their flight home and have too much to see in the meantime. So they have left and Ian has joined and our travel group has shrunk to five.

The bus drivers never speak English, so communication is limited to a little waving and a lot of yelling. Yelling to tell us to sit in this seat, but not in that one. Yelling to tell us to wake up, or to go eat food, or to get off for the rest stop now or to get back on the bus before they leave us behind.

The edge of the old quarter, Hanoi
The edge of the old quarter, Hanoi

On the way over the border between Laos and Vietnam we are woken up at 6:30 in the morning to a short Vietnamese man yelling at us frantically. Because that is the only way that we can communicate. It takes a minute or two of groggily trying to decipher the words coming out of his mouth, trying to understand if it is broken English or fast Vietnamese, to realize that he is shouting at us that we are at the border of Laos and Vietnam and we need to get out so that we can go through border patrol.

Border patrol consists of, first, standing around in the freezing cold morning mountain air because the border doesn’t actually open until seven in the morning. Then we push through the crowd of westerners to get our passports to the window and the only person who is doling out exit visas. It takes a while for all six of us to successfully get our exit stamps, and once we finally do we can cross the border and we are in Vietnam.

Except that there is nothing there.

We try and go to our bus that we see parked by the side of the road, but we get yelled at again when we start walking towards it, so, confused, we start walking down the road. It takes maybe fifteen minutes before we finally see the Vietnamese border patrol, the next crowd of people that we will have to push through to get our passports stamped and get on our way.

And by the time we have finished with everything it is nearly 9:30 in the morning and we are yelled at to get back on the bus because everyone else is already on there and because we have taken much longer than any of the Laotians that are on the bus to get through the border, but we cant really be blamed for that because we really did try and push through to the fronts of the crowds but it just gets too hard sometimes.

So that bus ride will go down as one of the more amusing ones, and not one of the horror story ones. And we can brag, too, because we survived a twenty-five hour bus ride, shoved in the back and yelled at, across two countries, and we made it out alive. And sane.