V I E T N A M
Sunsets, salty hair and eating snake in Lan Ha Bay, Vietnam.
I was woken up by the pins and needles in my arm and a sudden jolt of the stuffy sleeper bus that launched me and the rest of its passengers forward in our seats. Bleary eyed, I peered through the slit in my grimy window curtains and watched as our rusty double decker bus tried to heave itself onto what looked like a cargo ship. I checked my phone. It was 5:03 am.
When Ella and I decided we wanted to trade Vietnam’s tourist trap Halong Bay for its less popular sister bay, Lan Ha, we knew we'd be taking a risk. In exchange for the infamous Castaways island tour, we booked an Air BnB advertised as a "local homestay on fisherman's houseboat” just off Cat Ba Island. There were no pictures of the bedrooms or toilets. We were told there would be no air conditioning and no Wifi. It was also a given that there would be no local shops or restaurants we could get to, unless the pair of us wanted to kayak across the Gulf of Tonkin to get to the mainland. "The best kind of people book these places" a guest told Ella and I as we swung on hammocks together sipping beer one afternoon. "You have to be a certain kind of person to book a homestay in Asia that doesn't have photographs of the bedrooms."
Prior to our arrival, communication with our Air Bnb host was plain sailing. He spoke perfect English, gave us accurate directions, and even told us what sampan boat driver to look for when we arrived at Ben Beo harbour as not to get ripped off.
Pulling up to the floating home and heaving ourselves and our backpacks onto the deck we were greeted with open arms by a smiling Vietnamese man. "Hello!" Ella and I beamed at him, finally putting a face to the name we had been messaging since we first booked in July. "Caa" the man said pointing at his chest. It became very apparent very quickly that this man wasn't Duc, the English speaking university graduate we'd been organising our stay with online, but his Vietnamese brother, ‘Charles’.
Charles didn't speak a word of English, which was both daunting and exciting. "What if we need help?" we thought. "How do we ask him to book our taxi boat home?" And my favourite question of all, "how do we know what we're eating?"
Meal times on Charles' houseboat were both my favourite and least favourite times of the day. After watching the sun get swallowed into the sea on our first evening, Ella and I, along with the other guests at the homestay gathered round the table, patiently waiting for Charles to serve us the meal he’d been preparing for hours before.
Dinner on our houseboat quickly became a time Ella and I liked to call "meat roulette". Charles brought over several bowls of food before placing a giant pot of sticky steaming rice onto the middle of the table. He grunted and ushered us all to grab our chopsticks and start eating. Unsurprisingly, tucking into bowls of food when you have no idea what they are is like taking part in a bush tucker trial. The vegetables (mainly sea cabbage) were always delicious, salty and sour. The rice was always filling and safe. The rest of it, however, was like delving into a bag of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour jelly beans and hoping you don’t get vomit.
After watching some other guests enjoying the pieces of 'meat' marinated in what looked like a garlic and tomato sauce, I was tempted to try it. "It's tofu!" someone said. "No it's definitely fish" confirmed another, to which Charles nodded reassuringly, making a swimming motion with his left hand. I ate endless mouthfuls of the delicious tofu, which had the consistency of chicken, but tasted slightly like a buttery fish. It was almost sponge-like in texture and unlike anything I had eaten before. It was weird but wonderful, and we went to sleep with full bellies.
Whilst slurping up glass noodles the following morning for breakfast, an Austrian guest on the houseboat announced to the group "You know yesterday, I'm pretty sure that meat was snake”. I stopped mid noodle slurp and took a breath. "Are you sure?" I asked him. He told us he was almost positive, relaying the peculiar taste and unfamiliar consistency. I remembered how I'd lapped up mouthfuls and mouthfuls of the stuff, gorging in our first proper meal in days. I thought of its odd shape, how it lacked any fish bones, how its buttery texture was too soft to be tofu. I pictured how Charles had slid his hand from side to side in a snake like motion and clapped when we all said we enjoyed it.
Anyone who knows me is aware of my completely irrational and debilitating phobia of snakes. Even a picture of one is enough to set my heart pumping and my phone will fly across any room. My sister and her husband have run a reptile business in Cornwall for years now, and I haven't got the balls to even stand in the doorway of their shop. I sat on the toilet frontways peering down at the water for a month in Thailand last year after reading that snakes can climb up the toilet pipes. It's bad. It's real. And I had one swimming in my digestive system.
Sickness, a panic attack, and a stressful hour sobbing in our floating bedroom later, Ella and I now fondly look back on that morning as “snake meltdown.” A hysterical moment in our travels so far that paved the way for our “meat roulette” dinner times. The following night I vowed to only eat sea cabbage and rice, sulking as everyone else enjoyed bowls of delicious looking vegetables and fresh seafood. “Is this beef Charles?” one guest asked our host whilst taking the final piece of meat from a large bowl. It wasn’t until Charles started neighing and galloping on his seat that I suddenly felt remarkably smug for sticking to my sea cabbage. Yes. It was horse.
Despite the unpredictable meals and lack of communication, staying on Charles’ houseboat in Lan Ha Bay was one of the best travel experiences of my life. Even when a wild storm hit the sea and wind threatened to batter our door down, I felt remarkably safe tucked into our tiny deck knowing that this was something the local fishermen and their families dealt with often in the monsoon season. I truly believed that Charles would man his fort, an expert of the seas who was proud and protective of his guests.
We’d spend hours swinging on hammocks, reading and reflecting. During the day, all the guests on the houseboat would take the kayaks out together, dipping under caves and exploring local lagoons. In the evening, we played cards and word games, laughing for hours with people we’d only just met. The sea became our reality and the quirky wooden home was our safety net from the ocean. It was both basic and a paradise, its unpredictability was everything I love about travelling.
If you’re travelling to Vietnam and are looking for a similar experience, I can only warn you that this is a very basic accommodation for those who love spontaneity and can deal with a slower pace of life. The Air BnB has everything you need, but not everything you might want. It was a weird but wonderful experience, leaving Ella and I in search of more homestays as we travel from the North down to the South of Vietnam.
Although I won’t miss the meat roulette, the open air toilet, washing our hair in the sea or the howling wind battering our cabin at night, I will definitely dream of the sublime views, the morning silence, waking up and jumping straight into the sea, and of course, Charles. Although I do have pictures of the bedrooms and the toilet, I’m reluctant to share them with anyone curious about booking.
After all... “the best people stay in places like this” for a reason.