Freedom

These wings are spreading across my shoulder blades and they’re full of strength. They’ll save when (if) I fall, so I have no need to give in to this fear nagging at my feet. I have wings!

Are you willing to look like a fool for your dreams? The very thought of it makes me… Itchy, unprepared, but also… Bursting out of my skin with potential.

Ambitious people inspire me. Inspiring, intelligent, loving people.

Loving. How many times I have fallen for life of late; a sunrise, a smile from a stranger, a puppy, a child, a headstand accomplished. I can do, go, love: anything, anywhere, the whole universe with my whole being.

Freedom hangs in the air today, it’s on my shoulders but it’s an upward force. It’s those wings, begging me to fly.

Sa Pa in all its glory

I fall off the bus in a daze, it’s dark and freezing, did I even sleep last night? Probably but not enough.

I am shivering, the mini shorts seemed like a great idea when I was sweating in Hanoi. The Vietnamese kids I met did warn me, “sapa has 4 seasons every day.”

I am in the middle of winter.

A man appeared out of the crowd with a sign bearing my name. We piled ourselves, along with all my luggage, onto his motorbike. He had a spare jacket he leant me for the ride. We rode through the town and soon left it behind, the sun slowly crept out of the horizon and leapt into the valley, painting the sky, lighting up the river and abundant rice fields.

Motorbike taxi man
Motorbike taxi man

At the home stay I’d booked were a few fellow travellers also just off the night bus. There were puppies and children running around while we slumped over the table. We ate nearly in silence and inhaled a few coffees. One girl, Lin, is from Hoi An in the middle of Vietnam and she was keen to go hiking. Together we began the 8km back to sapa, stopping along the way to eat mandarins and chew on sugar cane. I’d never done this before, Lin shows me which bits to eat, how you suck out the juice and spit out the pulp. There we sit on palm leaves on the side of the rode, chatting, chewing, spitting.

Sugar cane!
Sugar cane!

She told me a lot. About her childhood of school in the morning and tending to buffalo in the afternoon (I was returning home from the river the next day and Lin found me tryin to walk through fields. “What are you doing Thalia?” “I’m scared of the buffalo!” She laughed, “come on girl!” And took me by the arm. “They just want to be friendly.”) she told me how her town of Hoi An has become over priced and over run with tourists so much that she doesn’t like it any more. She showed me new foods, which fruit to buy, a few phrases to use.

Friendly buffalo
Friendly buffalo

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We met her sister in the town and hired bikes, we rode to a waterfall in the mountains and ran around posing for photos (‘do something Thalia!’ They’d say, pulling me into ‘model’ poses).

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Riding back was the most incredible sunset, one side of the mountains burning orange and the other cool blues and pinks and the valley filled up with fog. The heat of the day was gone when we returned and I cursed myself for the second time that day for wearing too little.

We ate barbecue for dinner: rice rolls, corn and sweet potato. Followed by raw peanuts and sesame snaps.

PUPPY!
PUPPY!

The next day began with petting puppies and watching children pay. Eventually we parted from the ever relaxing breakfast table to wander to the waterfall but quickly got side tracked as some kids joined us and lead us to a spot on the river.

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This river is now one of my favourite places in the world.

Facing forward there’s children sitting on the grassy river bank, eating the snacks we gave them. Behind them the mountains stretch up to the sky, terraced rice fields, little houses and every so often a person wandering around, more often a buffalo. Behind me the same.

Left and right the river runs, icy water flowing over my skin so cold it burns. We splay ourselves out over rocks, the light in the valley is golden. Everything is glowing. We have this place all to ourselves.

I abandon showers and return the next morning to bathe again.

The home stay (Mikus’ chill house) exceeds my highest expectations. The children are adorable, running around wild. The combination of puppies, children and views onto the never ending rice fields from hammocks on the front porch add up to a kind of therapy.

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I wake to the sun rise, sipping a coffee, reading a book (Shantaram by Gregory Davis Roberts- so far so good!) banana pancakes are close behind. The guests of all ages chat while petting puppies, we bathe in the river, we hike and come together for a family meal and a modest bed time of 9pm.

Hanoi and it’s traffic feel planets away. It seems crazy that the rush of the world can coexist with this little slice of paradise.

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The atmosphere here makes my every muscle relax. A massage from the beauty, the pace of life.

Rice paradise
Rice paradise

One night in Hanoi and a whole lot of coffee

Hanoi swept me up in a rush of traffic, street food and coffee.

Let’s put an emphasis on the coffee.

Arriving at 8pm I decided on going for a walk, I struggled to find vegetarian food (I didn’t know where to look!) and probably paid too much for some average rice paper rolls.

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All was not lost, I knew exactly where to look for a glorious egg coffee. Well, I did after I walked around the same block four times and asked numerous people for directions…

Cafe pho co:
Just back from hoan kiem lake, walking through a little hallway in from the Main Street you’ll be in darkness until it opens up to the cafe.
The staff took my order as soon as I walked in, egg coffee, to save them walking up the stairs twice I supposed.

A few flights of stairs later and I am seated, a view of the lake and all of its surrounding lights, sipping on my coffee. Sipping might be the wrong verb, scooping up its sweet goop with a spoon.

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Egg coffee at cafe pho co

Black coffee underneath thick, whipped egg… Sweet and gooey like a meringue custard.

Coffee success number one.

Number two happened the next day (and again that same day).

I managed to test out the first Vietnamese word I’ve learnt: “chay.”
“Vegetarian.”

I wandered all over the place looking for a Bahn mi and ended up in street after street of mechanical devices. But there, down that alley, sat a woman who looked kind and in front of her was a little cabinet containing bread, eggs and various pates.

“Bahn mi, chay?”

She smiled and held out pickled carrots and cucumber for me to approve. She held up some money to show me how much. 15000 dong! (99 cents)

Lathered with hot sauce, the bread was warm and its contents dripped out onto the flyer she’d wrapped it in.

My mouth was full of a pleasant burn and I was sweaty and thirsty…

Cong caphe:
They have 6 locations around Hanoi and I am all the happier for it. I meant to order coffee with condensed milk as I haven’t tried it yet but I got tempted by the coconut coffee smoothie and I have no regrets.

Coconut coffee smoothie at cooing caphe
Coconut coffee smoothie at cooing caphe

It’s not a smoothie by normal standards, it’s a mound of frozen coconut yoghurt in a pool of coffee. The ultimate twist on an affogato.

So good that I went back again after dinner.

I like finding places in cities that take me out of the city and into the people. Parks, beaches and lakes work well. My hostel here is right by hoan kiem lake so I’ve been there three times so far. The first time I was asked to hold some ones baby so they could take a photo, the baby cried, finally smiled and it was all laughs. The second and third time I went with the idea of writing or reading and instead I was quickly encircled by Vietnamese students wishing to improve their English.

I met a girl the same age as me who worried greatly for my safety as a solo traveler. One boy has a book where he gets everyone he talks to by the lake to write a message in their native tongue- he speaks six languages! My initial response was to tell them to go away so I could read my book. How silly of me. Speaking is such an efficient way to learn and it’s so easy for me to do.

I get a homey feel from the city. I feel like I belong. Someone came up to me while I was shopping asking if I was a regular and could I point them in the direction for bread? I could, but only because I’d seen it a few minutes prior. I was recommending cafes to people.

The city is confusing with the language barrier and the mess of traffic.

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I have arrived in Vietnam! And it only excites me further knowing I have time to get to know this country better.

Riding to Mae Salong

I’d become a part of a small group that formed in pai and together we traveled to Chiang mai and ended up in Chiang rai.

We all hired scooters and set off, wobbly helmets, t shirts and silly grins exclusive to naive tourists. We were headed up to Mae Salong. (I DID hire a scooter. As soon as I left the shop the staff ran after me asking if I was sure about driving, all bearing very worried expressions. I was confident, “yes I’m going to Mae salong!” Alas, I just barely made it back to the hostel. In those 5 minutes I came scarily close to crashing into a police car (of all cars!) which sent me screaming to a halt 3/4 of the way across the main road. So I decided driving a scooter wasn’t for me (yet!) Joe, my new Bavarian friend, stepped up as my chauffeur 😎).

Thanks joe
Thanks joe

We rode north and the highway was soon swallowed up by glowing rice fields and valleys breathing in the days sunlight. This was what id been looking for from Thailand.

Joe wooped and I yelled compliments to the land we were winding into as each bend revealed new wonders. The mountains rose and the fields became terraced. The road slid away below us and the wind grazed our skin so fiercely it was left feeling strange.

We arrived and ate at a cute Chinese restaurant, the locals were speaking Chinese, Chinese lanterns were strung across the street. We were right near the border of Myanmar and somewhere history lead a group of Chinese people to set up this tiny town atop the mountains of Thailand.

We head back to Chiang rai such that the sky went through all of its outfits, blue, pink and black, during our 2 hour ride. I found it: Beauty.

Loy kathrong festival in Chiang Rai

Music is vibrating the bench seat of the tuk tuk. Four of us are crammed into this little carriage, our features lit by neon pink and blue lights, the driver seems totally oblivious to the music he’s blaring- and to the reactions of those we pass.

Stuck in traffic we stop behind a ute full of people, we smile at them and them as us, before long we are all dancing to this weird mix of 80s and techno music.

The night was just beginning, the traffic was so thick because we were all headed to the same place at the same time: to the river! It’s November 14th, the super moon is on the rise and loy kathrong festival has arrived.

We wedge ourselves into the crowd that is shuffling down the narrow alley of market stalls selling food, flower baskets and small, live turtles and snakes in bags (to be released along side the flower baskets). We each buy a flower basket, delicately full of petals and containing three incense sticks and a candle. Finally the crowds disperse as we reach the water.

Shoes off we are knee deep in the river, mud reaching up between our toes. The water is black and dotted with candles drifting down current, an abstract mirror of the night sky.

We light our candles, waft the incense around and release our little baskets along side the many locals, paying respects to the goddess of water. That was such a moment. One of the moments that make you stop and just think ‘this is the point.’ And I did stop, the others went back to shore but something held me there, the ground became quick sand and it was sucking me in to show me life’s beauty. So I stayed, staring somewhere between the epic super moon shining down on me and the hundreds of baskets floating by my sides…