From Hell to Paradise

Day 3 – Sooooo, here’s the thing. Manny and Karen are on an adventure around the world for a year, which means they need to be diligent and careful about how they spend their finite dolla dolla bills. Accordingly, since joining Manny and Karen, I’ve officially entered the budget traveling part of this trip. This place we arrived at last night, a motel called Vagibi, is $38 for all three nights. And it shows.

The mattresses feel like wooden pallets covered in a thin layer of cotton padding. The sheets themselves smell cleanish, but show signs of wear through islands of stains that you don’t have to look hard to find. The floors may or may not have been swept before we arrived, and the shower and toilet and sink are all part of the same thing… no separator, just a giant cleanliness/grooming cube. Which is all fine. Seriously, I can deal. What I can’t deal with though, what I find beyond hellish, is not sleeping.

As 50% latina, sleep is 100% important to me, and I slept like a pile of poo. Which is to say poorly. I woke up at a bright and early 6am, because of shooting pains in my back. If I breathed too deep, stabbing bolts of ow! If I turned on my back, lightning bolts of uggghh! Was it the poor excuse of a bed that caused this pain? Was it the massage from the day before? Was it some combination of the two? Probably this last thing. Either way, I decided it was time to relocate, happy to foot the bill for a new place with a version of a mattress more familiar to the one I know.

Karen and Manny were totally wiped though, and not wanting to wake them, as well as not really knowing what to do with myself in the meantime, I puttered around from 6am to 9am, eventually taking a frigid shower where every sharp intake of “omfg this is cold” caused a small howl of pain. My back was not having it. Post-shower, I looked up other accommodations in the area, and decided that yup, a new hotel was more than an in order. When the rest of the crew woke up (maybe with some light help from me), we packed up our bags, paid for our one night at the Vagibi, and checked into our new home away from home, the Anh Linh 2. Turns out the Anh Linh would have its own set of oddities, but the bed and mattress were passable and so we happily settled into the new space, and made our way to breakfast at a place called the Treehugger.

Ah, The Treehugger! A little oasis in Dong Hoi. Since I’ve been in Vietnam, I’ve found communicating with people to be extremely challenging. Everyone is so nice and obliging and happy to help, but they just don’t speak much English at all, and even when they do it takes quite some effort to make out the English through the Vietnamese accent. It’s turned out to be one of the toughest language barriers I’ve encountered in my travels. Which is, in a way, super exciting and fun. In another way, fodder for some hilarious and also not-quite-so-funny misinterpretations. At The Treehugger, the staff speaks and understands excellent English, and, ah, what a relief to communicate easily and fluidly and order a meal without worrying what we might have accidentally asked for!

Breakfast was delicious (I had banana crepes with honey), and we perused Dong Hoi guidebooks that The Treehugger had specially made. The whole rationale for picking Dong Hoi as one of ours tops, is that it’s a short hour or so drive from the Phong Nha national park, famous for its cave systems. As you may or may not know, I’m a cave fiend, and visiting this park was high on my list of must-dos. Tomorrow we’re off on a jungle trek to explore some of these cave systems, but today the plan was to putter around Dong Hoi, and maybe check out the beach. Well, aside from the fact that it was a rainy and overcast day, the beach wasn’t much of a looker, so we decided to double up on the caving (yaaass!!!), and visit a well-known site called Paradise Caves. The people at The Treehugger hooked us up, and within an hour we were on a private car driving to Phong Na park.

Getting to Phong Nha was a breeze. A drive, then a short 2km walk to the site, and we found ourselves in the massive, massive cave system. There is a walkway that threads throughout the entire thing, so it wasn’t much exertion on our part, and more a time to ooh and ahh at the incredible formations. When we first entered the caves, we didn’t realize how big they were. At first, I think we were all a bit disappointed because we thought the first chamber was going to be it. Turns out Paradise Caves is a giant, long, varied system, one that kept us enraptured and taking pictures for well over an hour. We didn’t get a guide this time around, so I don’t have much color to add to the visit, except with pictures.

Feeling we’d done very well with our last-minute day plans, we arrived back in Dong Hoi ravenous, so the first order of business was to grab an early dinner at a restaurant called Seventh Heaven (yes, there was much sitcom-song singing on our way there). It’s a fusion restaurant with some ‘Merican options, like burgers and pizza, as well as Vietnamese dishes. Karen’s tummy has been acting up, so she wanted to put a hold on the Vietnamese. Seventh Heaven seemed like a safe bet.

The sister and I both ordered burgers, mine with a cashew/peanut patty, and Manu ordered a soup. Then came dessert. The menu boasted a Crepe Suzette, by far my favorite dessert on this planet! I’d eyed it on the menu since we first sat down, and was eagerly anticipating this grand finale all meal long. A Crepe Suzette, for those who haven’t yet experienced this heavenly ambrosia of a dish, is a crepe with a sauce of Grand Marnier, orange peel, caramelized sugar, that is lit aflame at your table and topped with a dollop of chantilly. I wasn’t necessarily expecting the fire show, but when they brought out my order, a very naked looking couple of crepes, with some chocolate sauce, I knew that I was in for a bit of a disappointment. Cutting into my folded crepe, my fears were confirmed. There was nothing. It was bare. Oh, the humanity!!! There was maybe a hint of orange in the crepe itself, but the Suzette was nowhere to be found. We called over the waitress, who tried to explain that yes, this was a Crepe Suzette, only to later confess that she had no clue what a Crepe Suzette even is. We all had a good laugh, and I haven’t yet given up my hope that I’ll find this favorite dish of mine somewhere in this country. In any case, however good the crepe might have been, it had nothing on the feast for eyes we gorged on all day.

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