Northern Vietnam: Hanna and I trek into the mountains and meet a shaman

Northern Vietnam: Hanna and I trek into the mountains and meet a shaman

Sapa in Northern Vietnam is the ultimate getaway for those looking for adventures into the Vietnamese countryside. This is evident from every person hawking homestay tours and every shop selling knockoff North Face products of every variety to assist you on your trek. 

Hanna and I had booked a 2 day trek and homestay previously and still had zero concept of what we were doing. When we arrived in Sapa, where it was cold! (joyful but also not prepared at all 90% of suitcase is tanktops), we both began to grow concerned. When it started pouring rain the night before our trek started and we looked down at our Nike joggers with zero tread we started laughing at once again being woefully underprepared. 

But despite the mud, our patchwork hiking gear complete with 1 dollar poncho pants for Hanna we had an absolutely amazing trek filled with so many oddities you’d think we were making it all up.

We trekked a total of 30 kilometers over two days going deep into the Vietnamese countryside through five isolated local villages and did a homestay in the ‘village’ of Seo Trung Ho where we were quite literally the outsiders. Seo Trung Ho is 18 kilometers from Sapa on winding dirt roads through the bamboo jungles and most people almost never leave the village. It was the definition of remote. Hanna and I along with our amazing trekking partners Laura and Neil from Ireland drank tea together staring out over rice paddies all marveling and laughing hysterically about where we found ourselves. 
Our homestay was incredible and Mr. Kim and his wife Fo lo May spoke no english so our trusty trekking guide Tom (or Tam) had to be our translator. They made us an amazing and massive dinner and we all got very very intoxicated cheersing off their homemade rice wine (positively putrid//but after 3 shots of it the burning makes you numb). 

Did I mention Mr. Kim was a shaman? 

Mr. Kim asked Tam for all our birthdays and birth years and hours of birth and then he told us who we should marry and where our future was going. It was spooky and felt very real as we sat around a tiny table in a dark dark room with a small fire to keep us warm and heard our futures told to us in Vietnamese by a legit shaman with english translations. I suddenly feel very sure about where I am going. Thanks Mr. Kim. 

We then danced into the wee hours of the night to Adele (praise) which was the official theme song of our trek. Hellooo from Sapa. 

 It was raining for the second day of our trek and the lot of us were all gruesomely hungover but we managed to climb the giant hill through the mud, avoid massive piles of buffalo dung and keep a positive attitude despite the inclement weather. 

It was an absolutely incredible experience, one I will never forget. It was far away from the more ‘traditional’ tourist treks in Northern Vietnam or Sapa as our group was so small (only 4) we went much farther and stayed in a village with only one homestay option. The generosity was overwhelming and the entire experience was unbelievably positive. Wouldn’t change a thing…except maybe all the mud that has ruined my nike frees permanently. RIP nike frees. I could look at rice paddie fields for the rest of my life and never be tired of it. Maybe I’ll move to the remote village and life simply however, I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to the squatter toilet. 

We are in ‘Nam! (hanoi)

We are in ‘Nam! (hanoi)

We have eaten a lot of Pho and have attempted to bob and weave through the absolutely mental scooter traffic in Hanoi. Beer here is 5 dong. Essentially 15 cents. I love it already. 
We went on a free highly informative walking tour (did you know that most of Vietnam doesn’t identify as any major religion? However, 4 million of the population in Hanoi is catholic (french influence) Also, November is a very very popular time in Vietnam to get married so there were couples everywhere getting their photos taken…with very strange backdrops). 

It poured rain most of the day so we decided to go visit the Vietnams women’s museum for the day. WOW. This museum was really awesome and incredibly well done. Every floor was a different aspect of female life in Vietnam. One floor in particular that fascinated me the ‘marriage and birth’ floor which detailed rituals, traditions, beliefs of different groups of vietnamese people from all over the country. I found it highly entertaining and also super interesing. They have so many neat traditions! If no one slaughters a buffalo if I decide to get married the wedding is definitely off. 

 Additionally the floor detailing all the woman involved in the war efforts was incredible. Most people should know Vietnam’s complicated and tragic histories particularly involving the United States but I got to say they celebrate their women in a way that most western countries don’t. A LOT of woman have received the highest military honors for their efforts during the revolution and during the american war for helping on the front lines, for being medics, for fighting and leading troops into battle, for bringing down jets?!, I mean I’m not surprised I know women are awesome and completely capable but it was really great to see them celebrated and honored in this way, instead of being overlooked or there efforts being minimized by history. 

We are heading north to Sapa and going on a 3 day trek through the national park and the countryside and doing a homestay with some local vietnamese people now. I’m excited to explore more of this incredibly beautiful country. It’s however hard to hear about the risks of unexploded ordnances that litter the countryside from the american war still blowing people up. The haunting aspects of destruction on a grand scale. The way Americans are framed here. 

In light of everything that is happening in the world at large right now I just want to simply say that we must always remember that every choice our country chooses represents us everywhere and it is not ever forgotten by the countries and the people we choose to act against. Violence only breeds more violence. Ingrained hate passed from generations is difficult to dissemable. Our actions aren’t forgotten once we pack up and leave and the headlines quit covering it. It’s pretty easy to see why there is hate if you look, read, and think past 90% of the bullshit we’re all spoon fed. 

We want to leave a legacy that our children, grandchildren, friends, family won’t be embarrassed to say where they come from. 

We want to leave a legacy where it wouldn’t be tragic poetic justice to have an American (or anyone) 50ish years later blown up by a bomb dropped from their own country meant for an unknown ‘evil’ other. 

Hanna and I ride a bus for 25 hours (guest post by thee Hanna Bauer)

Now, I’m always one for a good deal and I’ve ridden what I previously believed to be truly miserable buses, boats, vans to get to places I wanted to be and usually after the fact I say something close to ‘eh that wasn’t so bad, I’d do it again.’No. No. Oh no. 

First of all, as a cherry on the top of this entire experience which made it difficult for me to laugh about what was happening to us while it was happening, mere minutes before boarding this bus I was puking, still incapable of holding food down but I was determined to leave Laos and also not miss our bus so I boarded silently commanding myself to be done being sick and get it together. 

To describe the experience better I have asked Hanna to write in as a guest because for the entire 25 hours we were trapped on this bus I was trying to meditate in order to remain sane and not be sick so I really wasn’t mentally or emotionally capable of truly describing what happened. 

There is only one photo that acts as evidence of this but it is heinous selfie of us looking miserable and should never be shared. 

Hanna here….

A description of the bus we just got off: large red vehicle, neon tube lights inside and out. When we boarded, we were given a plastic sack to put our shoes in and were placed in the back, second level. To get to these seats, you had to hoist yourself up and crawl on this strange spongy platform (Cassie editoralizing: similar to the bottom of a gymnasium floor) and crawl over the five people in our row to your small allotted purgatory. 

The chairs were like reclining vinyl air plane chairs, except you could never sit upright because your head would hit the ceiling. 

No arm rests. I was dead center, Cassie to my right, next to a Korean girl whose pointy elbows and sweaty leg constantly invaded my small plot. I also had a fever and was incredibly hot, couldn’t stand to touch anyone. It would have been much more comfortable if we were 5’3 80 pound vietnamese people, like the majority on the bus. The few non-vietnamese people were all sat in our section, which was interesting. Were we in the VIP section? or the hell hole? It was hard to tell. The roads were winding and the bus lurched. The drivers music sounded like a bad default ring tone that never ended. Sometimes we pulled over to pee in squat toilets with no toilet paper. It was the strangest experience and all I did was lay on my back nap and think for twenty five hours.”

So that’s how we got to Vietnam. Clearly, high luxury. That’s 40 dollar travel folks. A seat where your head lays inches from your neighbor for 25 hours and you are incapable of sitting up. 

Also there was no toilet on the bus. 

On a positive note that I couldn’t really appreciate at the time because I was emotionally dead inside, the transition from Laos to Vietnam was the smoothest border entry I’ve ever done with no waiting. Also the Vietnamese border patrol let me use their toilet, which had all the luxuries TP, soap, flusher, so I really vibed with them.

Don’t eat the street Papaya in Laos

Don’t eat the street Papaya in Laos

Note: this blog post deals (unfortunately) with a lot of people being sick. No graphic or descriptive imagery or photo evidence. Just the word puke a lot. 
 It was a really difficult couple of days in Laos. Our first couple of days in this beautiful interesting country were fantastic. We had a weird but joyous night out that involved midnight bowling with friends from the slow boat and we explored interesting temples and walked across bamboo bridges and poked around the (very touristy) town of Luang Prabang. This is how I choose to remember our time in Luang Prabang.   

Unfortunately, disaster struck. It began with a curse placed on us by Khammany (sp.? doesn’t deserve to be known) hostel that shames the name of hostel. This is the place your relatives warned you about. Now, I’ve stayed in some very questionable places (health and safety code wise) but I truly believed I would never encounter a place that I actually couldn’t stay in. Hanna and I retreated the following morning having not slept a wink horrified by the putrid smell of sewage, the floors covered in used ear plugs no locks and the beds that were really just a metal frame with a piece of paper on it. (Hanna: “I think there were ants in my bed.”) Never pay 4 USD kids, splurge and spend 6 and be a Queen. 

It’s good we retreated because later that day we went to the street food market where I devoured a glorious and questionably meat stick and Hanna committed one of the biggest mistakes of travel.   

She ate the street fruit. 

and then she puked all night. 

and then she slept all day and I kind of thought she was going to die as I delivered water to her bedside. 

I was going to have her write a guest post about her experience but she was too busy puking in the street. 

We missed our van to Vang Vieng and stayed another night in Luang Prabang which was no problem because I homesteaded some coffee shops and learned about Laos buddhism! Did you know that monks can choose how long they want to serve? Most do it just for 3-10 years to give their parents good luck. Quite interesting. 

The curse continued because although Hanna began to recover she was still not necessarily better and I slowly started to feel sick myself. Whereas her illness was abrupt mine was a slow descent into abominable pain that has torn and shredded my GI in ways that are impossible to describe. I know these things are not related but I’m blaming it on the curse of Khammany and the worst van ride I’ve ever encountered. The 6 hours from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng stuffed into a mini van with way too many people in it on a makeshift chair (literally) and woman puking behind us as we weaved through ‘roads’ that were mostly potholes and honked while whipping around blind corners. It was made even worse because I knew in 2 days I was going to have to get back in the van and do it again. 

Vang Vieng is a neat place but both Hanna and I were feeling still pretty miserable and weak for most of our time there except for a three hour period where I rallied myself enough to go in a very cheap hot air balloon ride. 

Hanna and I both grew basically desperate to leave this country and this period of our travels behind. It’s unfortunate because I don’t want to feel this way about Laos but it’s tarnished now ever so slightly by the illness we both picked up there. Sometimes that happens in travel in fact I was surprised her and I had already traveled a month without any illness from street food. We rallied. We came back from it. But the curse of Khammany revealed itself in other insidious ways as it’s final parting gift from Laos. Our dirtbag travel choice (still cannot believe I survived this) to take a bus from Luang Prabang to Hanoi, Vietnam…for 25 hours. 

The simple beautiful challenging art of being

Theres been a lot of waiting on this trip. Waiting in lines and long winding van rides and hopeless ferry windows and all this waiting holds the promises of the next. The next town, adventure, view experience. 

I feel perpetually that in these moments (as I’ve been doing my whole life) I forget the now and focus purely, fully on the next. It’s a common coping mechanism for impatient people, those of us that are not zen enough or enlightened enough or balanced enough to exist and be and stand patiently without fidgeting. I think we all know these people and I think some (most) of us are these people. 

I know I am. I live, even what in retrospect may have been a beautiful stunning moment, forever considering the next. I wish I didn’t. I wish I could be better at simply being. I desire desperately for my mind to not haphazardly wander and wane and take me to other places when I should be exactly where I am. 

But I’m working on it. This trip is a perpetual process of me working on it. 

These past couple days were me working on it in a big way. Hanna and I chose to take the south east Asia famous journey from northern Thailand to Laos via slow boat.   

The slow boat is a 3 day journey from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Luang Prabang Laos. Two of those days you spend the better part of your morning and entire afternoon idling and weaving and slowly and randomly picking up locals and dropping them off down the Mekong River. There’s no wifi or outlets or really comfortable chairs and all you can do for 8ish hours daily is stare out at the jungle as you float along. 

The slow boat is a test in patience and endurance and ultimately an experience that is wholly and entirely about the journey. It has nothing to do with the next.  It was one of the first times I’ve felt myself truly “be”. Be where I was completely and engaging actively with the beautiful incredible slow boat squad (almost family they are so familiar) and our surroundings and be a part of something that was truly just what it was. No distractions or fanfare (we are talking about workers that pushed the boat backwards with long bamboo poles. Feeling thankful for reverse and bow thrusters and power steering).  

It was lovely and despite the gross parts (vile bathrooms, horrible smells, questionable guest houses) it was a bonding experience that is unparalleled.

The slow boat was a remarkable, memorable experience that is rare in a world of travel that often feels rushed or jam packed with desire for ‘ultimate experience.’ The slow boat had nothing to do with snapchat or Instagram or a senseless desire to prove how interesting our carefully curated life is. It was simply what it was. A jungle boat full of people from all over the world mixing for three days and exchanging perspectives and personalities. It was beautiful (except for the Laos border crossing. That was a test of sheer force of will to survive). 

Everyone should go. Everyone should find their own slow boat, whatever form it may take, to practice the simple challenging art of being.  

A letter to my backpack

It’s been a month. I thought I’d check in. I know you stink and smell and are covered in dirt from the peeling floors of dorms and guest houses and street corners that I carelessly dumped you on. I know that you still have sand in your corners from the beach we left behind weeks ago.
I’m sorry for that.
I’m sorry that nothing inside you ever dries in this cruel climate. I’m sorry that I forget the incredible role you’re playing in this adventure as you carry around all my stinky mildly mildewy stuff. I wish the further we traveled together the more you’d expand. To fit better all the little things I keep picking up on the way and to store the items that will someday be incredible memories in the form of objects that I turn over in callused ancient hands smiling remembering the weird smell of street meat sticks wafting as I haggled over a dollar difference. 

You are literally carrying my hard evidence. You are solid real proof that I did this and saw that and I wish you could expand. 

The same way that I’ve felt my heart constrict and convulse and I’m sure grow inside my beating chest so big I wonder how it could possibly be the same size. 

The same when I look at you.

 I’ve been to 10 cities, 2 countries, beach-to-jungle, underwater, up the mountains, seen spectacular sights that drew me speechless and I know I’m not the same that I was. 

But you, my dear backpack, my hard evidence, you are still the same. 

A little more dirty, a little bit roughed up. You look like me I’m sure. But your insides, like mine, are different. Sandy and strange and yes, smelly (someday we won’t smell I’m sure of it) stuffed with my memories. The stains on those tattered shirts the weird odors the sand covered shorts, the bikini tops that will never be the same (ever) the gifts I’m trying to keep separate they are the realness of what I’m carrying inside me. 

So im sorry I keep forgetting you, sometimes cursing you as we wander the streets in the sun sweating. I’m sorry that I stuff more and stuff more and more and stuff stuff stuff into you till you’re bursting. I feel the same and I love it.

I know you do too.

 We will both be sad when the stuffing is over and we have to unpack, both literally and figuratively. 

That’s why it’s okay to be smelly and sweaty and stuffed. I’ll try to remember to dump the sand out of your bottom corners and you keep doing exactly what you’re doing. Don’t change a thing. We’ve still got a lot to go. More countries and more cities and more smells to pick up. I’m thrilled that you’re watching my back as we travel. 

Love, Cassie 

sexy and disgusting and dangerous: motor biking to Pai

Hindsight being 20/20 this idea was insane…and I’d do it again. The look of sheer shock on people’s faces since completing this journey when I say casually what we did tells me enough about the choice we made. Everyone looks in wondrous shock that we appear non-disfigured and are still 100% alive. 

I can hardly believe it either. 

Motor biking to Pai sounded simple and kind of sexy. We were excited for a journey with Chris and Nicole and to see some nature. Scooter freedom, take our time, really live the experience to this weird northern hippie town to the fullest. The scooter journey sounded like a sort of pilgrimmage through much needed jungle really IN nature not just bouncing around the back of a bus. 

I’m still getting dirt, dust, bugs off my skin. I’m still marveling about the fact that I’m not covered in road rash or laying broken in a Thai hospital (sorry mom. Aren’t you glad you’re hearing about this now that I’m perfectly safe.)

The road was endless, broken pavement everywhere, potholes so large if you knocked one your cheap scooter would probably break in two, loose gravel, mud, dirt. Every corner was a blind hair pin prayer to our maker that no van, bus, or banana truck would whip around at a bad angle. 

700+ hair pin turns I found out when we arrived in Pai covered in dirt starved for food shaky from balancing dodging maneuvering a scooter up down around for 4 hours. 

Even though it was terrifying it was also exhilarating, beyond beautiful scenery, and dare I say sexy? Despite the dirt dust near death death experience I never felt so al ive as I did whipping around blind corners on our shaking scooter. I am quite sure Hanna did not feel the same, she was a sweaty control less passenger white knuckle gripping as I whizzed us through the jungle. 

But I brought us 8 hours round trip unscathed. 

We had two flat tires. An experience that could’ve been horrible but miraculous fate had them occur both in what was most likely the only two parts of the ride where we were a mere 2 minute walk from a mechanic. (One of which was a beautiful lovely non English speaking school janitor who fixed our bike with a grin and no complaints. This country is beauiful in both scenery and people.)

It was the least sexy and most sexy I’ve ever felt. The best experiences are always that way. Giving you cold sweats and shaky hands but good god, you feel that this is what living really IS. Dangling your mortality a little bit off the branch makes you want to whoop scream in terror beam about beatuiful breathing life. 

In the jungle with a broken dusty road and a shuttering scooter I felt that. That I was really living my life, not moving passively as it happened to me. 

Special shoutout to my papa’s guardian angels. I am 100% certain the only reason Hanna and I are still able to tell this story has everything to do with outside invisible forces and very little to do with me being an “expert” scooter driver.