Often when I get to places, I wish I had gotten years earlier before every storefront was trying to sell me an American breakfast and a burger. I think I can finally say I reached a place at the right time, when they’ve installed some infrastructure (some electricity, wifi, cell coverage, and air conditioning) but before it got overrun with foreign tourists. I think we counted an average of five or so foreigners a day. That doesn’t mean there weren’t huge groups of Vietnamese tourists, but at least no one was trying to sell me crap food or drugs. Quan Lan Island isn’t easy to get to but I’m glad I made the journey as a break from running into too many tourist towns.
In high school my friends and I had our photo up in a sushi restaurant next to school because we were there so often. My current version of that is I managed to stay at Quan Lan Island so long the hotel owner told me that we were his longest guests. Much like in high school, I’m totally ok with being a regular somewhere with fresh, cheap seafood. He also asked if I was a researcher because I didn’t like doing the normal touristy things and spent a lot of time writing and drawing instead. Apparently the other guests spend all light hours at the beach, temples or pagodas. I think he might’ve missed the part where my friend and I got sunburned the first day and had to relax a lot of the week.
I am amused the entire town noticed we were there longer than the night or two everyone else stayed. Everyone we interacted with asked us how long we were staying or jokingly ribbed us about how long we’d already been there. Most people didn’t speak English so this involved a lot of smiling and actually elbowing me in my ribs.
Our slow relaxing stay gave me plenty of time to bike around the island and interact with people, and unfortunately, so many bloodsucking bugs. The lack of working gears on all the bikes meant I got to cruise extra slowly and observe life as it happened, one of my favorite things to do while trying as hard as I can to not look creepy. My day job used to be making games and I still greatly enjoy seeing how people in different places play games or entertain themselves. I smiled as the toddlers crowded around a man making a kite for them out of old pieces of paper. Kids would run outside or play hide and seek with me as they yelled “Hah-low!” when I rode by. They stood in a circle and played hacky sack with a metal shuttlecock like thing and seemed pleased when I tried, and failed, to kick it to one of them. My favorite was the group of little girls we pulled up to on a side sand road who ran up to us to practice their English. They run up to my friend, who is white, and start asking her where she is from or how she is. This time they wanted to see the wallet around her neck, thinking they were binoculars. They ran up after we wandered off, fists clenched and wanting to share. What would a little kid give you? Oh of course, they’re little kids. They dropped handfuls of small live bugs in our hands. We smiled, looked at them crawl, and gave them back, unsure of what we were supposed to do with them. I love the endless wonderful curiosity of kids, before little girls grow up to learn to be terrified of bugs and when you still want to share the treasures you found with anyone in sight.
My interactions with everyone else but kids were on a broader range of different and weird from what I’m used to. There was the old guy on the beach who kept trying to rub sand off my collarbone, hold up his styrofoam cooler top to fend the sun off for me, and then tried to sit next to me. We learned that to get a beer from the already cranky sleeping lady in the hammock, you slap her really hard on the leg. She’ll still always get up, pour you a cold draft, and skim off all the foam for you though. I got chased by a pack of barking dogs on a bike for reasons I still don’t understand. This does not even count the various times we were shooed from or ignored at places that had pictures of food on their signs but apparently did not serve food at the moment. That is the true adventure of traveling: getting the weird, the unexpected, and the beautiful interactions all at the same time.
It was hardly an evening in Hanoi before I remembered how hectic and loud the city was. I already miss the island. Developers were creeping in and destroying parts of the island so I hope they don’t get too much of it. I already want to go back and relax some more.