Week 15, Huế and Da Nang, Vietnam

Diary of a Globetrotting Family: Busted laptop, rainy Huế, and the dragon of Da Nang

Our New Year got off to a rainy start—plus a few difficulties before we got to Da Nang. Huế (pronounced “huh-way,” by the way) brought us more quiet days than we expected. At the same time, I feel a fair bit of gratitude to be typing this at all. Let’s get to why.

“While the surgeon worked, the digital nomad looked on, helpless and waiting.”

Technical difficulties

While the surgeon worked, the digital nomad looked on, helpless and waiting. Through the open glass door behind them, the city’s endless stream of motorbikes, the constant steam of simmering noodle soup broth, and the ever-shifting tones and pitches of spoken Vietnamese bustled on.

Travel is part of life. Life comes with difficulties. Therefore, travel comes with difficulties too. Travel—and life—come with opportunities, joys, and absolute bliss, not just challenge and hardship. While we’ve racked up plenty of the good times, occasionally something not at all fun crops up and pops us one in the kisser.

Blame it on the rain?

As our train chugged about four hours south from Dong Hoi to Huế, the wet Vietnamese winter continued to remind us of Oregon. Of all the things we might have expected from Vietnam, this was not one of them. We had read that northern and central Vietnam could have some cool, wet times. Visiting at the end of the rainy season, we had known it was possible that some of the wet would stick around for us Oregonians. But we had not expected a couple of weeks of needing long sleeves and rain jackets.

On the first day of 2023, we woke to clouds so low they might as well have been sitting on the roofs of the Huế high-rises around us. Mist slicked up the sidewalks and streets, but it also washed away New Year’s Eve’s beer sludge and cigarette butts. (As much as we like Vietnam, we still have not come to grips with the high smoking rate.) Fortunately, the rain scrubbed the tar and smoke stink out of the air, too. Sure, the New Year was rainy, but at least it smelled good.

In our room, though, the rain brought something else. While we liked our room, with its white walls, loft bed for the kids, and included breakfast, the building’s old windows brought a bunch of damp and condensation right inside, like extra guests. The bathroom mirror usually had a sheen of moisture on it. A clamminess settled into the bedding, making the sheets feel not quite wet, but strangely crinkled, and almost sticky against the skin.

All is dark

My professional life comes down to my laptop. This silvery gray MacBook Pro has been my trusty work companion for years. I try to take good care of it (though as Jodie and the kids will probably point out, my typing has caused the black keyboard to have so many rubbed-away bright spaces that some keys look like black eye negatives).

On New Year’s Day, I worked away on my laptop, and closed it, content, with a good day’s writing and other tasks taken care of.

The next day, our next-to-last day in Huế, during some downtime before breakfast, I opened my trusty laptop. I waited for the dark screen to brighten awake, so I could log in and set up my tasks for the workday. The screen stayed dark. I waited some more. Tapping the spacebar can jog the computer into remembering it has something to do, but today that did nothing. I pressed and released the power button, but might as well have tried to whisper “hello” into the microphone port.

Restarts and various alchemical keyboard combinations all had the same effect: I saw myself in a dark, lifeless rectangle of glass.

Had my computer died? Had something broken? And if it had, how in the hell was I going to work?

After a few minutes of shuddering, near weeping, and almost panic, I plugged an adapter into the computer and hooked it up to the TV in our room. There it was: my display. Not on the computer screen, but on the TV.

On the one hand, that was a good thing. My computer hadn’t broken. Only my screen had busted. That was a bad thing. And potentially a very expensive one.

We’ll always have the Dragon Bridge

As a traveling family of digital nomads, our tech is vital. Jodie and I run our business together, and much of our work depends on our computers. Problems can happen, for sure. We’re familiar with problems. Having one crop up like this was a big surprise.

After a few days in Huế, we continued south to Da Nang. Jodie and I had done a little research online and found a repair place that looked reputable and had many good reviews. Settling into our much drier room in Da Nang, we marveled at the view of the buildings—and the lush, green trees right below our teeny balcony. Across the street, a tall tree brimmed with light green starfruits.

While Jodie and the kids hung out in the room, I snagged my rain jacket, put my laptop into my backpack, arranged a ride via Grab, and headed out into Da Nang to see just how much fixing my computer was going to cost us. The car turned toward a large, golden head in the air. The golden head connected to a cylindrical body that undulated like waves. As we crossed the Hàn River via Da Nang’s famous bridge, I snagged a video and texted it to Jodie and the kids.

“I got to go over the Dragon Bridge!”

“Just as with the human body, a computer’s insides are an elegant mess that leaves you amazed at what it can do.”

In surgery

The repair tech sat behind a blocky, dark desk. The bodies of Apple laptops, displays, and desktop towers lay in piles. On the opposite side of two chairs for customers, a perimeter of tool cups full of green or purple-handled screwdrivers surrounded a clear area—the operating table, apparently.

Fortunately, the tech and I had corresponded briefly on Google, and he was expecting me. Handing over my computer, I talked through the various things I had tried. He hooked up the computer to an external display, ran a few checks of his own. His sad nod validated the patient’s condition.

“The display is broken.”

I sighed. On the one hand, it was still better than having to replace the entire computer. In the US, replacing a Mac’s display could cost at least $600.

The tech and I talked over some options.

“I can replace the display,” he said. “It’ll take about twenty minutes and cost about seven point two million dong.”

Checking my currency converter app, I plugged in the numbers so they would convert to US dollars.

“Seven point two million dong,” I repeated, and he nodded.

The converter refreshed: US$305. Less than half of what it would cost back home.

“Let’s go for it, doc.”

Recovery

The tech’s focus narrowed. His nimble hands grabbed a slim screwdriver, then he flipped my computer over and opened up its bottom panel. It’s been a while since I’d looked inside a computer. Just as with the human body, a computer’s insides are an elegant mess that leaves you amazed at what it can do.

This is the part of the story where, if it were a medical drama or a thriller, I would drag you along with the digital equivalents of emergencies, flatlining, and a dramatic resurrection. If I were a proper storyteller, I’d have you as on the edge of your seat as I was on mine. Together, you and I would be terrified that I’d lose all my computer’s precious data. Or that the tech would completely screw up, blitz my machine, and with a shrug he’d shove me out the door, on my own except now with no working computer.

None of that happened.

For starters, even if something had broken my computer, all my info was duplicated in the cloud. My key writing files were also on another device. Having to replace my computer would have been a sucky, expensive, financial hardship, but it would not have been an emergency in the sense of potentially losing my data.

The biggest drama the tech and I had was that the first screen he tried was optimized for a different processor, and the display was too dim. He swapped it out for another. Before I knew it, I was logging back into my account, pulling up my apps and files, and seeing that all was now well.

More tech drama

Funnily enough, replacing the laptop’s display was the easy part. At the register, I handed over my credit card.

The woman at the register ran the card. Then her eyes showed concern. She called over the tech and another person, tried the card again, then apologized as the three of them looked at power cords, opened up the reader’s battery hatch, and hunted for another device.

Turns out, their card reader wasn’t working.

“The world would be most lacking in pretty places if fewer people heeded the instructions of mysterious wise women who vanish.”

Central Vietnam Pacific Northwest

Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue, Vietnam
Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue, Vietnam

A wide, gray river flowed, and boats rode the current and slight chop. From the hilltop where we stood, pine trees and bonsai wicked the mist out of the drizzly air. The gray sky left small clear beads on our rain jackets, and slick paving stones kept us mindful of our steps. On plant pots, the lower parts of walls, and tiles on parts of the plaza where drainage was, perhaps, not as efficient, carpet tiles of green moss worked on taking over and re-greening the hilltop.

It could have been anywhere we’ve visited in the Northwest, especially west of the Cascade Mountains. Astoria, Oregon, on the mouth of the Columbia River at the height of summer. Belknap Hot Springs Resort, in the foothills of the Cascades, on the rushing McKenzie River. Camping in Bandon, on the Southern Oregon Coast.

But it wasn’t. We were in central Vietnam, on the Perfume River, at Huế’s signature hilltop Thiên Mụ Pagoda, in a city that once was the capital of Vietnam. The serene space was part temple, part garden, and all quiet, even with us and dozens of other tourists about. People wandered to the enclosure that holds a large stone turtle, or pondered the massive bronze bells. We examined treasures and Buddhist iconography in the silent temple, where only bare or socked feet gave a slapping whisper on the brown tile. 

Everywhere we went at Thiên Mụ, I thought, over and over, how important it is that we let ourselves be guided not just by our own senses and ideas, but by forces beyond our own determination. The world would be most lacking in pretty places if fewer people heeded the instructions of mysterious wise women who vanish.

Build here

According to legend, a wise woman waited on this hilltop that overlooks the Perfume River. She proclaimed that a great lord would build a temple here, and it would help the country prosper. Upon hearing this, a great lord indeed followed through. He ordered the construction of a pagoda. Over the centuries, the pagoda has been damaged, destroyed, rebuilt, and expanded upon.

Today’s 7-tiered pagoda is a simple brick structure, and the interior is closed to visitors. Surrounding it, though, are fascinating grounds. We had read about a sculpture of a turtle, similar in size to the real freshwater turtles whose preserved remains we had seen in Hanoi. In Vietnamese culture, the turtle symbolizes longevity, independence, and wisdom. Gazing at the silvery-gray marble turtle in its enclosure, I realized that if ever I wanted a tattoo, it would be a turtle.

Bonsai forest

Behind the main temple, a tiled plaza is the grounds for a bonsai forest. Stands and pots contain trees tall and small. Some of them are wrapped in spirals of thick wire, to guide their growth to a desired shape, curve, and angle. Wandering through the spread out trees, the city faded. While the main bustle of Huế lay across the river, we could no longer even see much of the city. Surrounding the bonsai plaza, tall trees screened the hill, turning it into its own little world of serenity.

A new year can begin in so many ways and set so many tones. Jodie and I are working toward some bigger strategies for our business and for our travels with the kids. Yet we like to start a new year with quiet reflection. It recharges us—so when it’s time for us to hustle, strive, and soar, we are refreshed and ready.

Carefully descending the steep brick staircase that connected the hilltop pagoda with the street below, Jodie and I stared out at the river. Wide and rippling, the water flowed toward the sea under the gray sky. A new year, our year, was underway.

“Da Nang got to our hearts in a way few places do.”

Rain delays and better days

Don't mess with these wee guards. They can be vicious.
Don’t mess with these wee guards. They can be vicious.

Living in Oregon, we are accustomed to donning good boots and rustly rain gear to head outside in just about any kind of weather. The next day in Huế, though, the rain turned from polite drizzle to a sort of lazy monsoon. While there was not a driving downpour, the steady rain made it clear it could hose down the city anytime it wanted, only it couldn’t quite be bothered right now.

It was a terrible day to do anything outside, even for us. While we always enjoy a good rainy day where we can hunker down with hot beverages, a bit of entertainment, and each other’s company, we had planned to spend our last full day in Huế visiting the former capital’s renowned Imperial Palace. The massive grounds suffered a lot of damage during the war, but restoration has been ongoing since the 1990s.

Unfortunately, there was no way we were going to find mucking about the grounds fun. So we put aside our palace plans. Huế, though, was a place we wanted to return to in a better season. The palace, we knew, would wait when we came back.

New days in Da Nang

There are cities I will always be smitten with. Edinburgh, Scotland, was the first non-US city I ever got to know well. Chiang Mai and its markets make me smile, all the more so now that I’ve gotten to be in the city with my family. Seattle’s waters and skyline will always soothe my soul.

Now, I can add Da Nang, Vietnam, to my long city of urban infatuations.

Building on a taste of the city

Just a couple of hours’ drive south of Huế, the coastal city of about 1.2 million people, strikes a sweet spot for me and Jodie. Da Nang is big enough to offer pretty much anything you could want, without being so large that it feels overwhelming. The city curls in on itself, so from above it can look sort of like a wave. From one shore, you can see the other, skyline to forest, high rises to the lone statue of the Lady Buddha.

Restoring my computer gave me a taste of the city. The next day, we figured out that we could walk about ten minutes and be on the beach. While the season had the waters too choppy for swimming or play (and red flags standing on the beach announced that the water was closed), the kids dashed too and from the thinning waves, then dug in the sand and threw gritty handfuls of former boulders into the sea.

The skies were cloudy, but the rain was minimal. Instead of the long sleeves and rain jackets we had needed in Phong Nha and Huế, we could slip on sandals and short sleeves. A combination of new year glee and core city character suffused Da Nang with a sense of joy, as if celebration was always on the cusp of brimming over onto the streets.

Da Nang got to our hearts in a way few places do. There are many spots, urban or rural, that we visit, and feel gratitude for having been there. Often, we know when we feel satisfied with a place, when we are ready to move on, and when a place was nice to visit, but we don’t need to come back. Da Nang brought the opposite, though. Each day we felt excited to be there, to wander around the streets, and to marvel at the lights that brightened up each dark night.

Da Nang was a sign of better days to come, and we would make the most of each one.

“There is a time when every family becomes an Abbott and Costello routine.”

Umm

Banh mi sandwiches, smoothie bowls, veggie bowls—we've started our days with some pretty awesome breakfasts in Da Nang, like this smoothie bowl at Roots, near our hotel.
Banh mi sandwiches, smoothie bowls, veggie bowls—we’ve started our days with some pretty awesome breakfasts in Da Nang, like this smoothie bowl at Roots, near our hotel.

There is a time when every family becomes an Abbott and Costello routine. One morning in Da Nang, as we finished getting ready for the day, we leaped proudly into one of our own.

“Where are we going to have breakfast?” I asked the kids.

“Umm,” said Connor.

I shrugged. “I can’t remember the name either.”

“No, Umm.” Aster giggled.

“Relax,” I said, “it’ll come to you.”

“Umm,” said Connor, trying out the word as he laughed.

“Umm,” yelled Aster over her laughter.

I also could barely speak by now. “It’s on the top of my tongue, too.”

“No, that’s the name,” said Aster.

“No, Umm,” I said.

“You got it!” said Connor.

We laughed and laughed as we got our shoes on—for we were heading down the street in Da Nang to a sandwich shop called, you guessed it, Umm Banh Mi & Cafe.

Strolling past Roots Plant-Based Foods, Rainbowl Poke, Lu Coffee, Coffee and Cake Cafe, Coffee 42, Venus Coffee, and more coffee shops than I could take notes about, we soon crunched into the shattering crust of fresh baguette sandwiches.

Da Nang has been a delight for food. Crispy bánh xèo, a sort of meat and veggie filled pancake fritter served rolled up in rice paper and greens, has become a family favorite. A bowl of beef or chicken pho noodle soup is my go-to dish or for whenever a bit of Vietnamese comfort food sounds tasty. Aster has especially taken to nem lụi, a ground pork sausage wrapped around a stalk of lemongrass and grilled. 

Da Nang is a town for people who love food. Da Nang is a town for us.

“We came not just for the food. We came for the dragon.”

Daddy, why don’t we live here?

Dragon bridge river cruise time in Da Nang!
Dragon bridge river cruise time in Da Nang!

Da Nang marked the penultimate stop on our first family trip to Vietnam, and choosing to come here was most deliberate. Believe it or not, we didn’t just come for the food. We came for the dragon.

Da Nang’s Dragon Bridge doesn’t just span the Son River. The golden head and long, cylindrical body undulates from one side of the river to the other. Yet the bridge not only is a delight to see. Every Saturday night at 9 p.m., authorities close the span to traffic. People line the streets and the riverside promenades, all to watch the dragon first spout fire, then jet a plume of water through the air. 

We, however, would not be celebrating this famous sight from the bridge or the promenade. No. We would be on a boat, in the middle of the river, with about the best vantage you could ask for.

Riding through the city after a dinner of poke bowls (for us parents) and smoothie bowls (for the kids), we looked back and forth at the lit-up buildings. LED strips and dots covered many a high rise, and each was set to put on a show. From the facade of one high rise, colors spiraled outward in circles, as if the building were wearing a tie-dye. The dragon also changed color: a deep autumnal orange, a dark jade green, a blue like Crater Lake. Getting out at the dock, we picked up our tickets and hung out for the building light show while we waited to get on board our boat.

Rainbow alert

On one building in particular, long, narrow vertical strips of light flowed between windows and along the corners of the building. Now and then the pattern would change, and Aster would begin to dance and spin on the sidewalk.

“Rainbow alert!” she would call out. “It’s rainbow!”

Connor, too, marveled at the buildings, calling out color changes he thought Jodie or Aster or I would like. An ebullience hung in the air. Some of it was the new year and the anticipation of the dragon show. But some of it was something else. With each day in Da Nang, I believe that the city’s character carries an inherent lightness of heart. It’s a beautiful, free feeling, to be in a bustling city yet feel relaxed—even safe. It’s another to feel that where you are has a certain natural baseline of joy. It brings out the joy in yourself, as if you know you are in a place that welcomes joy to come out and play.

As the children’s excitement danced around them, I found myself in a memory. A little boy Anthony, about Aster’s age, seeing the skyline of New York City for the first time. The excitement I felt then, I could see in my children now.

Plume and spray

The boat made its slow way along almost the middle of the river channel. We passed other boats, most two or three decks high, like ours, each lit up and brilliant from decorative lights and a common sense of cheer.

Passing under the Dragon Bridge, soon the boat turned around, passed beneath the bridge again, and drifted to a stop. We had found our dragon-watching spot. The boat stayed still, bobbing in the waves. We could feel the boat tilt slightly to one side, as pretty much everyone on board shifted to the side facing the dragon.

Nine o’clock came. Inside the dragon’s dark mouth, a small fireball blazed up—then a plume of flame shot from the mouth and across the air, fading into a black cloud that puffed upward toward the clouds. For the next few minutes, the dragon breathed fire as if it were inhaling, and then sending out flame on the exhale. People clapped and cheered, including us, especially the kids. Tears welled up in my eyes. The dragon. The lights. The joy in the city. The beauty of the boat ride. Pure gratitude and joy were as clear to me in this moment as the dragon’s flame was in my vision.

For a couple of moments, the dragon went calm, dark, and still. Then the water jetted out, like a cloud, a spray of mist, ballooning out into the night, silver gray against the sky and the skyline.

“That’s a good idea that the fire comes out first,” said Aster. “Then the water can put out anything that caught on fire.”

I ❤️ Da Nang

When the show was over, the featured performer did not take a bow, though I swear it felt as if the massive gold-tinged, orange-lit dragon did. The boat began chugging back toward the dock.

“Daddy?” said Aster.

“Yes?”

“Why don’t we live here?”

It was a good question. As we travel, Jodie and I have kept in the back of our minds that we may come across a place we want to return to, spend more time, perhaps even have more of, shall we say, a presence in.

I put my arm around Aster’s shoulders and gave her a squeeze. “You never know,” I told her. “But when a place makes us feel like Da Nang does, that is definitely a place I could see us spending more time in.”

“Good,” replied Aster. “Connor and I want to come back here and stay.”

The boat gently bumped along the edge of the dock and stopped. Across the river, along the entire side of one tall, broad building, a huge screen turned bright blue. Up came shimmering white letters that said “I ❤️ Da Nang.”

And you know what?

We do.

About the author
Learners and Makers
We are the St. Clair Family: Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster. As Learners and Makers, our family of four slows down, connects, and enjoys the world and each other's company. We have been traveling full time since 2022.

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