Brooke Around Town

the joys of land travel in asia

If you haven’t yet had the rare pleasure of traveling internationally via bus, you’ve missed out. This should get you up to speed on the do’s and don’ts.

  1. No shoes on the bus. I’m into this from the very start; I absolutely love being barefoot. In the summer. It’s about 10°C and the driver seems intent on maintaining air circulation by keeping the air-con at a constant hum. I rapidly lose interest. Through an unfortunate series of events revolving around a much-needed bathroom stop (which actually just means that I finally convinced the driver to pull over to the side of a dirt road in rural Vietnam), I wind up losing my only shoes by falling hip-dip into a mud hole. The worst part is that Aristo manages to dig them out of the mud but we aren’t even allowed to bring them on the bus because the driver is so hell-bent on cleanliness. Well, no, the worst part is that they have to hose me off with icewater before I’m allowed back on the bus. I’m pretty sure my toes froze together.
  2. Bring your own blanket and bring some socks, because you may die of hypothermia. That’s no way to go.
  3. No eating on the bus. Never mind the fact that it’s a 24-hour bus ride, there is no eating allowed. It’s like being twelve all over again. But no matter—it’s secretly thrilling. The drivers usually have some kind of assistant that patrols the bus and yells at people for any number of things, but it’s a simple matter of shoving the evidence up your sleeve when he walks by and feigning confusion at his rapid gestures when he inevitably catches you with lettuce on your face.
  4. Don’t ever expect anything to be on time. When the woman at the bus depot tells you that you’ll arrive in 18 hours, that’s actually code for 26 hours. Not that a backpacker really ever has any pressing social engagements, but still. Don’t expect to arrive in a timely fashion.
  5. Consider booking a room in the arrival city before hand. It will invariably be a holiday weekend (no matter how strongly you believe yourself to have circumvented Chinese New Year or Tet traffic, something will be happening and you will be homeless). Even though this goes against everything I believe in as a backpacker, do yourself a favour and book a room. Or you will legitimately wander around the city for 4 hours with all your stuff in search of cheap accommodation that does not exist. After a day and a half on a bus and, for some, a tragic spill into a mud field, a shower is like gold and you will thank yourself for splurging and paying $15/night to get a room with actual hot water.
  6. Book the bus ticket from your hotel. You may think you are super clever when you decide to rent a bike and ride 15k on a dirt road to the bus station to buy the ticket directly, but you may feel slightly less clever when you discover that the difference in price is less than $1 and you have paid more than that to rent bicycles. Suck it up, pay the hotel, save yourself the shame. Plus, they will take you to the station in a little shuttle with everyone else and save you from paying for a tuk tuk.
  7. Then again, don’t book from the first hotel or agency you run across. The government-associated tourist centre may seem reliable. It is not. They will charge you $80 for what you later discover to be a $25 ticket. You win some, you lose some. But don’t lose some to the Thai government. It feels so predictable.
  8. Don’t sit by Germans. They are constantly screaming at each other. They could just be talking loudly, but I swear there is something sinister about it. But either way, it’s not conducive to sleep and if you are lucky enough to fall asleep between bumps on the road and having your head bashed into the window, you do not want to be blaming some six-foot blonde woman with a bowl cut for waking you up. She will have no qualms about redirecting the screaming to you if you even so much as think the word “quiet”.
  9. Border crossings are not as big of a drama as everyone likes to think. As long as you aren’t trying to illegally immigrate to Laos, no one is going to hassle you. But they like to make you wait (shocker), so don’t think that hurriedly stumbling half-dressed out of the bus and powerwalking the 3k across the border barefoot is saving you any trouble (you have to cross on foot, who knows why). Then again, if you’ve lost your shoes there simply isn’t anything to be done but to borrow two left foot clogs from the driver and stumble across dirt mounds in shoes 5 sizes too large.
  10. As far as I can tell, there is no VIP bus. It does not exist. The promise of a bed and toilet for a 24-hour journey is thrilling and it’s easy to get suckered into paying the extra $5 or whatever for comfortable sleeping and bladder relief. The VIP bus will not be working. You will be sleeping in the same lounge seats as the normal bus, paying 50% more, and urinating in mud holes on the side of the road. Sometimes, you will be put in the only seats on the entire bus that don’t actually recline and you will sleep upright all night. Other times, you will be sitting on the floor because they overbooked the bus and life is a bitch. Aristo once sat in a plastic yard chair. He did not enjoy it, but then again I was on the floor and took several kicks to the face from sleeping passengers so it’s impossible to pick a clear loser.

All that being said, who comes to SE Asia to enjoy luxury? If you want to avoid drama, book a fucking flight. Otherwise, enjoy all the nonsense and get your money’s worth later by telling these stories to everyone you meet. Bus stories are like war stories to other travelers and I fell into a sink hole at 3am, so who is the real winner here.

Skip restaurants and eat only from street vendors in Vietnam. As a general rule, it’s only worth eating if there are no other westerners in the vicinity.

We arrive in Hanoi and are immediately drawn into the chaos of the markets and the bustle of people. Unfortunately, it is nearly freezing and we didn’t pack anything warmer than t-shirts so a shopping excursion becomes necessary. We spend some amazing days in Hanoi. It’s a struggle to keep warm, but the food is incredible and I really couldn’t ask for more. We will sit down and eat at any street vendor so long as there are only Vietnamese people eating—it is our only condition and leads us to some unusual places, but not ever at the expense of authenticity. One meal in the back of an alley just out of the Old Quarter smelled distinctly of pond water and I am 99% certain that it was some kind of duck liver soup, but it was strangely delicious and ends with us lost in a maze of excessively narrow residential streets getting some very strange looks.

For my birthday, we have our favourite chocolate bread rolls from the café down the street and coffee in the rooftop café overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake, where we then visit Ngoc Son Temple on the island to see the embalmed remains of a 250kg sea tortoise. We get massages, soon to be a recurring theme, get drinks, and go for kebabs—the birthday dinner of champions. I wake up in the middle of the night to Aristo vomiting what appears to be whole bites of the aforementioned kebab.

Despite Aristo waking up with a wicked hangover, we get up early and travel across town to meet up with some volunteers who contacted us through couchsurfing and invited us along to a disabled school. We play all sorts of games with the children, run around, dance—it’s absolutely amazing. The chicken dance seems to be universal. The other volunteers take us for bun cha for lunch and to coffee in this remarkable little hole-in-the-wall café above a knockoff handbag shop. We are the only white people in the café and it feels like we’ve joined some exclusive club, sitting on the veranda and chatting with the volunteers and some of the shop patrons. The specialty is coffee with egg, which doesn’t sound immediately appetizing, but turns out to be a shot of espresso and whipped egg whites and is incidentally the most delicious combination ever invented. We have four.

Big Buddha feat. Little Buddha
Nha Trang, Vietnam

Big Buddha feat. Little Buddha

Nha Trang, Vietnam

It’s 3 am and it takes us about an hour of wandering around to figure out that we aren’t actually in Mui Ne. We have no clue where we actually are, have no idea where to sleep, and are so exhausted that the gutter begins to look increasingly inviting. An infuriatingly long series of hand gestures with a taxi and we learn that we are actually in Phan Thiet because we, in a sleep-induced delirium, got off the bus an hour too early. Another round of charades, several phone calls to someone who allegedly speaks English and can translate (but who is probably the most confused out of everyone and doesn’t really speak any English at all), and a heated argument later, we are taken on motorbikes to a hotel that badly overcharges us ($15 a night is like robbery when you are used to $10) and shuffled in by a woman who insists that we have a room with two beds because she clearly does not approve of us sharing.

The whole thing is an ordeal. We end up bus hopping back and forth through cities to finally reach the beach in Mui Ne (which might be nice by something other than Australian standards, but we are spoiled and lurk around in the water whinging about the efforts it took to actually get here). It is littered with rubbish and European tourists, but it is nice to be in the ocean again. We’d been experiencing withdrawals.

We make our way via bus to Nha Trang and get some food before, once again, struggling to find accommodation so late at night. The next day, we visit some temples and other sacred Buddhist sites before taking ourselves to lunch, where we find bottles of vodka for $5 and invest the next couple hours into getting hopelessly drunk, but in an inspired, cultural sort of way. We stash the rest and bolt to our flight, but it ends up coming back out for the taxi ride and I am legitimately nervous that I will be refused from boarding the plane. Somehow, we struggle through the overwhelming task of getting out our passports and make it through security. Though it can often be inconvenient not being able to communicate with anyone, we enjoy the near constant privacy and suspect that the language barrier has also effectively prevented anyone from realizing that we are slurring. It proves advantageous and for a moment we delight in being foreign, having forgotten about the numerous communication-related disasters of recent days.

Ho Chi Minh City is a blur. More people live in this single city than in all of rural Australia combined. The streets are packed to the point where breathing is sometimes difficult and people drive as if standard traffic regulations are more vague guidelines than actual laws. This trip was originally dreamt up as a solo excursion, but I am sincerely thankful, at this point in particular, that Aristo is along to drive the motorbike through the sea of people. I am a shockingly awful driver and I happily assume my place as navigator on the back of the bike for the duration of the trip (though it should be noted that the only thing I am worse at than driving is reading maps and giving directions, so my role quickly becomes official backseat commentator). We spend our second day zipping around the city, tailing a lovely Vietnamese girl who befriended us through couchsurfing and has agreed to be our tour guide for the day.

 

In a lot of ways, Vietnam is entirely different than I expected. Maybe it is ignorant to anticipate hostility from people, but nearly all my past experience in travel has led me to the conclusion that being American is generally perceived as synonymous with being a pretention slob and that it is therefore best to avoid, whenever possible, associating oneself with America in any way. This trip is full of exceptions to my theory and I almost feel guilty for formulating it in the first place (but then I remember my time in Egypt and the theory isn’t ready to be entirely disproven). Oanh takes us to a dinner party at her friend’s house for Chinese New Year and everyone is thrilled to meet us and welcomes us in like old friends. We are treated to an incredible spread of food and, though nearly all of the other guests do not speak English, we are interrogated intensely by those who do about our trip and our lives. Aristo sits next to a little boy who is desperately scrambling to find commonality with us by discussing every Disney movie and frequently pausing to see if we can weigh in. We review Finding Nemo in depth and he is ecstatic to learn that we live near Sydney just like the dentist in the film. He tells us that his favourite countries are Japan and “USA”, neither of which he has visited, but both of which he seems to have an extensive knowledge of, presumably through television. The evening feels picturesquely Asian, as we sit cross-legged on the floor and pick at helpings of rice paper rolls and shrimp with chopsticks (a proclivity for which we have instantly developed and are displeased to drop when we reach more westernized areas and are handed forks). The party has been a beautiful introduction to what I can honestly say is one of the most friendly, intriguing, culturally-rich, and culinarily-delicious countries I have ever been to.

Another day, we decide to venture to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which were used by the Viet Cong during the war and have been highly recommended by Oanh and her friends. Stubborn and frugal, we decide to forgo a tour and take ourselves on the motorbike. The two hour drive is a maze of traffic followed by dirt roads and small homes in rural Vietnam. Outside of the city, no one speaks a word of English and our attempts to ask for directions from some guards, the owner of a servo, and a businessman returning from work are entirely fruitless and I think everyone grows slightly uncomfortable at our frantic gesturing of crawling through tunnels in continued attempts to communicate. Eventually, we do locate the tunnels, pay our entry in to hear the guide discuss what is actually a very ingenious design, and climb through the narrow tunnels (which have actually been conveniently widened to accommodate the more extensive Western girth) in what Aristo describes as “hot fun”.

I take the opportunity of an open, rural road to practice driving the motorbike, but after nearly taking my own leg off in what can only be described as the saddest driving effort ever made, I am once again demoted to passenger status. We get perilously lost on the way home and it is nothing short of a Christmas miracle when we somehow wind up back on our street and are able to sprint over to the bus just in time to smuggle some street food on.

The bus is taking us to Mui Ne, a beach town recommended by some Spanish travellers we met earlier in the week. As with all Asian buses, we are required to take our shoes off and pad around barefoot to our seats. I personally detest shoes, they are like a canvas foot prison, and the second mine are off, I pass out open mouthed and drool contentedly until we arrive.

en route

Having somehow managed to ready ourselves and pack only hours before our early morning departure, the trip appears to be off to a surprisingly smooth start. This is until we actually board the eight hour flight to Singapore and learn that not only is there no free in-flight food (which is a struggle enough as it is), but that there is no free water provided on the flight. I’ve been fighting some sort of flu-like-bug for weeks now and this news is particularly upsetting. By about hour two of the flight, I have completely given up on trying to survive without water and am making use of the filtration system dad posted me for Christmas in one of the rear lavatories. The rest of the flight continues in this manner and by the time we land, I am (ironically enough) too nauseous to eat, likely from dehydration. Having spent the last two months listening to people talk up the Singapore airport with its free massage chairs and movie theatre and butterfly garden, high expectations for a luxurious evening have long since been established. No one is more surprised than we are when we are locked out of the gate for our layover and have to sleep on chairs that are distinctly lacking any massage features in a 24-hour Burger King. 

I wake up with a few extra degrees of curvature in my spine and the special kind of headache that can only result from drinking airplane tap-water through a straw. I’m almost too infuriated to enjoy the free theatre’s screening of Independence Day once we finally do make it through the gate, but an hour-long calf massage works wonders and I’d have to be dead on the floor before I’d skip a free movie. 

I’m not even entirely sure of the next flight, it’s all a blur of excitement, but we do arrive in Ho Chi Minh eventually and manage to get ourselves to the hotel room we miraculously had the forethought to book. We go to bed at a depressingly early hour with a full stomach of street pho (soon to be my newest culinary obsession) and lychees from the market down the street.

The much anticipated (pretty much exclusively by mum) details of my recent adventure in Southeast Asia

Due to my complete lack of organization, I am just now getting around to actually posting these entries from my trip. I was really hoping to be able to blame it on technology, but Asia actually has more free wi-fi than Australia so this can be attributed almost entirely to my own avoidance of reality.

To set the scene a little bit, it is early January, just newly 2014, and I have been living with my boyfriend for the last three months in what was probably advertised as a beachside apartment, but what is more accurately a pest-ridden shack. In its defense, it really is throwing distance from the ocean and, for two 20-somethings whose exclusive aim is to be away from home as much as funds will allow, alarmingly perfect.

Before meeting Aristo, my plans hadn’t formulated any farther than packing my things up the day my lease expired. I had no where to move and was coming to terms with the prospect of homelessness (an adventure I secretly regret missing) when he whisked me out of my room in Fairy Meadow and into the glamour of central Wollongong (which is probably only glamourous to someone teetering on the brink of homelessness). We spent the early part of our summer meandering up and down the coast, exploring every inch of coastline from Hymes Beach to Lennox Head (as well as a few blurry days parked inland at a lookout in Nimbin). A welcomed detox from the rigid work and study structure of uni, summer was markedly wild and spontaneous. We drove where we wanted, when we wanted. And finally, when Asia loomed a few days away, with what has become our trademark lack of preparation, we frantically threw together some flights, a few loads of washing, a couple rushed messages to family, and didn’t look back.

the beginning of my story

This blog is the story of my wanderings through the world thus far and the continued and unpredictable adventures that seem to befall a girl who is addicted only to the things she’s never seen.

It starts in Seattle, 2012, in the middle of a particularly chilly Autumn, when I became overcome with this feeling. It was indescribable, but if it needed to be named could probably best be described as a constant sensation of suffocating. I was in my first year of a biology degree at Seattle University, living on Columbia Street in the heart of the city, and doing my best to keep up with the spirit of Capital Hill by visiting the tattoo parlour as often as my budget would allow, wearing more combat boots and military jackets than even the armed forces could require, and landing myself in disciplinary hearings for underage drinking just infrequently enough to keep my spot on the student representative board (but also frequently enough to convince everyone on the floor that I was wild enough to befriend). It had been my first choice school and my roommate was one of my best friends. I had wound up exactly where I had planned.

But that was the issue. I had never been a subscriber to the idea that we should all follow “the path”. It seems to me that everyone is beaten overhead with this concept, from the first days they are old enough bubble and gurgle, that we must all study hard, make good marks, go off to a good university (not so far from home that we can’t come home for Thanksgiving, but far enough that we delusionally think we’ve finally become independent), graduate, meet a nice partner (an accountant or a lawyer, maybe), settle into a career (not a job, but a “career”, mum always says), start paying mortgage on a little suburban home, and stop trying so diligently not to get pregnant. It’s like a stack of dominos, ready to topple over the second you consent, and it just continues down the line until you’re 65 years old with a modest retirement fund, a bunch of resentful offspring living a couple suburbs over, and a cat who can’t even walk up the stairs by herself due to a crippling case of arthritis. I had succumbed to the pressures of expectation. I had done exactly what everyone had anticipated. Somehow, drowning in the stress of college applications, I had lost my zest and signed myself up for the rest of my life. 

This particular Autumn, after my heart rate had finally settled down from all the pressures of graduating and moving, the winds hustled in a bit of clarity and in an instant I found myself sitting at the window of my closet-sized dorm room and looking out over my entire life. The sensation was overwhelming.

I became obsessed— infected—with the idea that I needed to leave, to run somewhere far away. This is the part of the story people cited in their arguments that I was “running away”, but if you’ve been paying attention at all, that’s the exact opposite of what is happening. I was running towards something. I just wasn’t sure what, and that was the entire point.

In what my parents would later describe over coffee to their work colleagues as a complete mental breakdown, I found myself on a plane to Australia with the last of my personal savings. A scouting trip. 

Travelling alone is like looking at yourself under a microscope. If you haven’t had the opportunity, I would highly recommend it. It isn’t for the faint of heart, and often times there are things about yourself that, unbeknownst to you yet, you find intolerable and your own company becomes a torment. Being the only child of a divorced financial contract manager and geotechnical engineer, I am very well acquainted with myself and will say, as humbly as possible, that I find my own company to be of a much higher quality than most.

—As an aside, I have found there to be two distinct personality types that emerge out of only-childhood. The first is a child who has never had to compete with siblings for affection from his or her parents, who has been handed things and has, as a result, come to expect the same sort of privileges and attention almost reflexively from the world. Unsurprisingly, such is generally not the case and this shock is almost too much to bear. These are the 20-somethings that lived down the hall from you on campus, who always seemed just a little bit confused when people didn’t pine after them or covet their friendship with quite the zealousness that they were accustomed to, and spent most of their time fabricating excuses to go home every weekend where such attention was a guarantee. Sadly, this is the typical outcome and it has left everyone with a really sour stereotype of only-children. The second type is the child who spent most of their early years sitting at the table with the adults, listening to spirited arguments about the current social security deficit and reading just about any library book they could cram in their school bag so they might have something interesting to contribute to the next bout of dinner party debate. This was me. I didn’t own any video games and didn’t watch cartoons, and in my eyes I was just a few inches short of adulthood by age 8. My friends always pity me when I talk about my Mario-less childhood, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I passed time on hikes with my father brainstorming inventions of tents that would spring out from matchboxes and held my breath under glacier lakes dreaming of all the people I could be. I spent my time running around outside until it was too dark to see, spent long nights awake reading books under the covers and writing stories in glittery journals by flashlight. Mum would tell me beautiful stories of her travels all over the world and I was obsessed with the excitement of being so far away that no one knew my name. Because of all these things, my time alone is one of the most important parts of my day, every day. It gives me time to think without any concept of reality, without the weight of obligation or the pressure of expectation. It gives me time to dream.—

I met a lot of people and had a lot of experiences on this trip. It was spontaneous in origin, had minimal planning after it’s conception, but once in motion— was complete chaos. It set me off. I had my face pressed against so many windows that I completely lost sight of my perfectly laid-out future. The only constant was me, staring wide-eyed back at myself in the reflection of a million different surfaces. It was on this trip that I completely lost my plan and, in a splendidly poetic paradox, completely found myself.

I was a different person when I returned home. I had a mission and was ruthless in executing it. Having only recently been the poster child for expectation, my family was utterly blindsided by me withdrawing from school and the news of my impending move to Australia sent everyone reeling. The next month was a blur of tears and screams. None of them mine. I had a plan and, for once, it was all my own. Mum tried to threaten me by withholding all my university money. She hoped I would choose security over adventure. My friends held an intervention. They called me fucking ridiculous and openly wished for my failure overseas, predicting that I’d be home before another session had passed. But for a dreamer, skeptics are like tinder to an already raging fire. 

I had the support of my step-mum and maybe one other friend as I got on a plane. I appreciated it, but I didn’t need it. This was about breaking out, and the reality is that no one is going to hold your hand in the real world. If you need to be convinced and coddled, you simply aren’t ready. You have to learn to be your own catalyst and your own reason. You have to be your own inspiration.

I’ve been here for a year and a half now, living in Wollongong, a modestly-sized uni town right on the coast of the Pacific, about 120kms south of Sydney. I have a whole separate life in this hemisphere, but it doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten where I’m from. I’m a product of the environment I was born into as well as the one I create for myself. 

I will be back in Seattle for three weeks this upcoming July for the first time since my move, and I couldn’t be more excited to bring back a shred of my new life and merge it with my past. Everything in Seattle will be different. Life has gone on without me and I’m not sure how I fit into that space anymore. But I’m not looking to fit anywhere. I belong in a mindset of constant exploration where too much is never enough. I am addicted to the feeling of confusion I get when I am somewhere I’ve never been, when I am hearing a language I can’t even begin to understand, when I am swallowed whole by a city. It’s positively infectious.

I haven’t spent a single second looking for a cure.