But, I did.
There we sat in a grimy bus station on navy blue plastic chairs. The chairs were all connected in rows like ones you would expect to see in any government office’s waiting room. We sat in the second row staring at a blank white wall well worn with scuffmarks from countless travelers coming through. The only fixture on the wall was a tiny clock up to the left.
With my mind on the clock, I realized it was noon. We were sitting there waiting to start a six hour-long episode of transport, and we hadn’t had lunch yet. We would be hopping from a bus to a boat to another bus to reach Cat Ba Island, Vietnam. From much experience, we have learned in South East Asia the ticket counter folks always tell you the journey will be a certain amount of time, but you should always take the estimated time with a grain of salt. You just never know how long it will actually take you to get to your destination. You can definitely bet you won’t be early!
Well, I knew we were guaranteed at least six hours of transport and we had no idea about our access to any food in the coming hours. I have learned being without snacks is not a good idea. Our hangry monsters are sure to sprout their awful heads!
We had twenty minutes before the bus was to depart, so I set off on a mission: food.
I squeezed between several men lounging on both sides of the front door to the waiting room. The door opened out into the bus station’s chaotic entry off the main road. Huge tourist buses rolled in one after another. Taxis came swooping in dropping people off, motorbikes were everywhere and at least 30 taxi drivers in light blue shirts were sprinting around lining up for every bus yelling, “TAXI! TAXI! TAXI! TAXI!”
To stay on the outskirts of the chaos, I followed the building to the left and found a tiny convenience store. The shelves were packed solid from the ceiling to the floor with plastic packages of manufactured food; chips, instant noodles, candy, etc. Essentially, just junk. Wincing, I grabbed the best option of chips: Hot Chilli Squid Flavor. "Oh, yum." Then, I noticed cups of popcorn hanging in the madness to my right. “Huh. Well, popcorn sounds more appealing and is healthier,” I thought. My brain didn’t listen to my hesitation when I felt the dust on the container cup. I even stopped and took a second to try to feel if the popcorn was hard through the plastic. I knew I was making the wrong decision, but I was trying to think positive. As I was paying, I thought, “I will probably regret this.”
I squeezed back through the lounging men at the front door to the waiting room feeling like I failed in my mission. I glanced up and saw Adam laughing at me. This further affirmed my failure. He already knew while I was still 20 feet away I had made a terrible decision with the popcorn. “Want some?” I asked. He declined with a shake of his head still chuckling.
I rolled back the plastic and the stale air escaped from the cup. Seeing, feeling and smelling all these warning signs, I still moved forward and popped a piece of popcorn into my mouth. Just as expected: Styrofoam taste and texture. Glancing around the cup, I couldn’t find an expiration date. Most likely, the popcorn was a year overdue. Great.
Without seeing a trashcan, I set the cup down under the seat in front of me. Not wanting to see anything go to waste, Adam grabbed the cup and began offering the Styrofoam to the travelers behind us on the third row of seats. They weren’t dumb. He even asked the locals behind the ticket counter. No takers. I was the sucker. Dang it.
I put my hands on the arms of the plastic seat as if to make a statement to myself. I stood up again, pulled up my big girl pants and thought, “Okay, I gotta find something.” I was determined this time. I squeezed through the same lounging men in the doorway for the third time and stepped out into the chaotic world of buses, motorbikes, taxis, and taxi drivers. Honk! Honk! “Taxi! Taxi! Taxi!”
My mission became finding a tiny Vietnamese lady. “Where is she? I know she has to be here.” Tiny, powerhouse, beautiful, little ladies in Vietnam walk the streets carrying their own restaurant on their shoulders.
When these ladies find a customer, they set up shop right on the sidewalk and prepare an egg sandwich or other snacks. You can find these women with five or six people circling her on tiny plastic chairs. These ladies are brilliant and have figured it out. Don’t wait for them to come to you. Find the customers where they are.
Knowing a little lady was my only hope for a substantial meal here, I scanned the edges of the bus station. “Where is she? No. I don’t see her.” I found a break in the buses, taxis and taxi drivers and ran across the bus station toward the entrance to scan the other nooks and crannies.
While I was scanning and looking, men started yelling at me, “Motorbike! Motorbike!” After months in South East Asia, you get yelled at all the time, so the yelling becomes background noise like the television becomes the comfortable background at home. It didn’t register they were yelling at me, until two men grabbed my arms. “MOTORBIKE! MOTORBIKE!” they yelled in my face.
“Oh, no you didn’t!” A new side of me was immediately unleashed. “Don’t you dare touch me!” I yanked my arms back from them and stared them straight in the eyes. I gave them a forceful, “NO!” like I would yell at a dog I’m reprimanding to show who’s the alpha here. “NO! NO MOTORBIKE!” I saw them back down, so I added, “I want FOOD!” As I said this, I motioned shoving food into my mouth. They got the point. Since I wasn’t going to be a customer, their attention turned to the next person. “Motorbike! Motorbike!”
I returned to my mission. “Where is she? Where is the little lady?” I decided to turn left to head out onto the main street’s sidewalk with no hope in sight. As I started walking, I saw tiny, blue plastic chairs to my left. In America, you would expect to see these chairs in the four-year-old room at the local day care center. Not in Vietnam. These are the seats adults sit on everywhere.
“Ah ha! Bingo! I found it!”
I locked my sight onto these teeny plastic chairs and made my way back into the bus station to the seats. Under a tarped roof, I started analyzing my surroundings. “Okay, what am I working with here?” I saw a clear plastic bag of bread rolls hanging from the front of the counter. Then, I saw a stove behind the counter. “An egg sandwich looks like potential here! Alright!”
I walked up to the counter. As I approached, the man behind the counter stared at me blankly. I pointed to the bread rolls to explain, “I would like a sandwich.” Suddenly another man stood to my right and handed me the entire plastic bag of 12 bread rolls. “Oh, no thank you,” I said. “Just one,” putting up my index finger to indicate one. Understanding me, the helpful man to the right grabbed one bread roll from the bag and handed it to me. I looked down at his bare hand wrapped around the bread and was aghast! Just like a mechanic’s covered in black grease. Well, the helpful man’s action created reaction in me. So, of course, I took the bread in my hand and then handed it on to the man behind the counter like the three of us were working on a bread roll assembly line.
The man behind the counter reacted the same as I did. He took the bread in his bare hand. I looked down at his hands and they weren’t much different than the man to my right. “What am I doing?” I was thinking. The man behind the counter looked at me like, “So, what do you want me to do with this?” My Vietnamese went as far as hello and thank you, so I started explaining a sandwich with my hands. I’m sure he interpreted my charades as I was trying to open a book or the Bible. His confused expression didn’t change. Needless to say there was a lot of confusion going on. I started channeling my mom in this interaction, “Just keep smiling Lindsey.”
Suddenly, I was shoved from behind and had to take a step forward to catch myself. A little lady pushed past me in between the two counters to get to the stove. The little lady! She had arrived! Victory!
The man behind the counter stood there holding my piece of bread in his hands as the lady started to prepare the stove. Then, it was like time turned to slowmo. In one motion the man released his index finger from my bread roll like a British man would release his pinky from a cup of tea. Slowly, the man’s greasy hand moved up to his nose. “No! No!” I screamed in my head. His finger continued on and his first knuckle vanished into the depths of his nostril! "NO!" Then with a flick of his finger I was back in real time, and he simply passed my bread roll to the little lady.
“No WAY! I just saw that.” I said to myself. “I cannot believe I am still standing here.” My bread roll had passed between four sets of bare hands and through a nose picker. To my amazement, instead of walking away and forfeiting my order, I grabbed a second roll and handed it to the nose picker to make a second sandwich for Adam! “What am I doing?”
I hadn’t realized it, but I had obviously caused some drama in this little nook of the bus station. I glanced behind and saw everyone staring at me from their little plastic chairs. One of the girls got up and approached me. “I speak English. Can I help you?” She tilted her head down with her ear toward me as if she was trying to hear me in a loud bar. As I was trying to explain myself to her, I noticed her gold earrings. “Oh, those are cute. Wait, what? Do those say…?” I was in disbelief. I was in Vietnam and this helpful, beautiful, sweet girl had gold earrings spelling f*$@. “Wait, that can’t be right.” I blinked and took a double look. Yep, they said f*$@. Well, this girl who spoke English with explicit English earrings only understood the word “two” out of my, “I would like two sandwiches.” She just looked at me in confusion with a, “Sorry, but I don’t understand,” expression. Still channeling my mom, we both politely giggled, bowed to each other and parted ways in a failed attempt.
My attention turned back toward the counter and the sandwiches. The lady at the stove had cut open the rolls like you would a sandwich. She turned to me holding up an egg with a questioning look. I nodded with a, “Yes, please!”
Woohoo! If I had a cowboy hat in Vietnam, it would have been flying. The little lady understood my charades! We were moving along and heading toward an egg sandwich, folks!
As I waited for the sandwich, I stood there standing in disbelief at my reality. I so wanted to take a picture to capture the moment and remember this ridiculous situation. My internal battle became, “Should I stick out even more and take a picture?” “No,” I told myself. I had stood out too much already. So, I waited. Finally, both egg sandwiches were steaming hot and placed in a plastic bag. My mission finding a tiny lady was a success! I was on my way.
In my before South East Asia life, I would never, ever, ever, have eaten anything from this grimy, nasty, greasy bus station. I would have said, “Oh, never mind. No, really, no thank you,” and would have politely bowed out. But when in South East Asia, your standards drop on food preparation and you fight for two egg sandwiches made with greasy bare hands from nose pickers. I was fierce to make the next six hours more comfortable no matter what! I didn't want to add hangriness to the experience of lugging our backpacks from bus, to boat to bus in the unbearable Vietnam humidity.
I couldn’t take it any longer. I would never be in the bus station again (hopefully) and I just had to record this moment for my memory. As I was walking back for the fourth time to the lounging men at the waiting room door, I turned around and snapped a picture.