This trip has had a rough take-off and landing, not literally, but in all other ways. The flights were long but fine, except for the 12-hour leg in the middle seat with the gum-chewing fat man encroaching on one side and the old Vietnamese nose-picking man on the other, but I drugged myself like a crated puppy and got through it. The turbulence started the night before when the student who was supposed to come with me, Paige, reported from Dallas that she wasn’t feeling well. High hopes for her rebound battled it out with increasingly serious updates about her condition, and by very late Saturday night, hours before we were to leave for the airport in Austin, news came that she had acute appendicitis and would need surgery. Not knowing what else to do, but worrying fiercely if my decision was ethical and in keeping with the spirit of the university funding of the trip, and holding out hope that the procedure would go smoothly and Paige would join me in a few days, and got on the plane and left. We had lost money on her ticket, and would have lost more on mine, plus the various hotel reservations, and train tickets. But the anxiety and stress wasn’t exactly about the money, it was about uncertainty: I didn’t know what to do, what the university expected me to do, what the ethical thing to do was. I got on the plane.
But I came anyway, and I also departed Hanoi for Sapa, each day and night not knowing if I needed to rearrange our itinerary or take the night train back round-trip to Hanoi to fetch her, or would it be okay to have the hotel take care of her? I confess it was with some measure of relief that I read the news in an email late Thursday night in Sapa that she was not going to get medical clearance for this year’s trip after all. I also began to realize how fortunate we all are – Paige, mostly – that he symptoms presented 12 hours before we began a 29-hour trip to a place with sub-standard medical care. Next year, Paige, I promise, next year: I literally still have a plane ticket with your name on it.
Still seeking my traveler’s angle of repose as I prepared to travel by night train north, some early signs, if you believe in such things, began to appear that I might be in the right place in the world after all. The very nice man at the Hanoi Elegance Ruby found a woman who wanted a train ticket and sold her Paige’s, so I now had a traveling companion and bunkmate. She also lucked into Paige’s gorgeous hotel room next door to me on the top floor of the Boutique Sapa hotel. A professor at BYU, currently working with students in China, she was charming and reassuring company and really grateful for my help and local knowledge. That was sign #1, I guess. Sign #2 came at the end of a sub-optimal van ride from Lao Cai to Sapa. They kept us waiting in one van for nearly an hour before moving us to another crowded one to make the twisting and turning ride. That was bad enough, but then people actually barfed in the van into little plastic bags. An inauspicious entry to Sapa, for sure. Then we pulled up in front of the hotel, and the owners Huyen and Son literally ran out of the door to embrace me and welcome us: sign #2. My BYU friend was in love with the place and the people at first sight. This was Thursday morning, and I still didn’t know if I’d have to travel back to Hanoi to get Paige. By Thursday night I was co-teaching the first session of the new Sapa O’Chau adult staff English class, which was really fun and exciting, and I felt like I knew what I was doing – sign #3.
At this point in the yarn, I should interject that except for a few fitful intervals, I hadn’t slept since Friday night in Austin.
Thurday night brings that news that Paige isn’t coming, and I should feel better and be able to sleep, but I don’t. Trying to find the right path, Friday morning I decide to cancel our excursions to Hue and Hoi An and just stay here another week and work. The minute I make this choice I feel better and hope sleep will come tonight at last. It does, but it takes more than a few days’ rum rations (in the form of Vang Dalat, semi-skanky Vietnamese red wine) to summon it.
Coming up: A gaggle of US professors, including a guy who’s read my so-called “work” on VN, a terrifying walk up stairs in the rain and fog, strange fruit and seaweed Pringles.