things to do
At a non-descript cafe on the side of a non-descript street in Da Nang, I sipped a cà phê sữa đá and thought of a recent conversation I had with my mother before leaving for Southeast Asia. I was having a coffee then as well, and I had mentioned that caffeine tends to keep me up at night if I have it too late in the day. My mother made an incredulous face and said, “That’s because you don’t work hard enough. If you work hard like your father and I do, you can fall asleep right away.” To me, that was a strange thing to say because my mother doesn’t work (and has never really worked), unless you call unnecessary clothes shopping a form of employment.*
So there we were in Da Nang, proving her point. We were getting tired of constantly bouncing from one place to another and the Southeast Asian heat followed us around, quietly beating us into submission. A friend in Saigon suggested Da Nang as a quiet place to hang our hats for a while so we trusted her. The city itself doesn’t look like anything special, and is as unassuming as they come. But look a little closer, and there is an empty, beautiful beach lining its eastern coast, a lush peninsula to the north and some damn good food.
We did the required touristy stuff like checking out the Bodhisattva of Mercy on Son Tra peninsula (we called her “The Lady”) and spending the day exploring the Marble Mountains. While both of these places were pretty interesting in their own ways, what we enjoyed doing the most was chilling by ourselves during the day and getting the more local experience with our new friends at night.
Beaching was very much on our list of priorities so we made a beeline for a private beach on My Khe. Well, not really a beeline, because we skirted around the main entrance to the hotel and entered through the side entrance to the beach like a couple of sketchy mofos… I guess we kind of are. Don’t get me started on privatizing beaches in these developing countries. We had lunch at an overpriced but decent restaurant next to the beach, soaked up the cleanliness of it all and pretended for a moment that we were guests of this overpriced resort.
St. Petersburg is Moscow’s flashy and pretty younger sister. While Moscow wears drab colors on her Soviet buildings, her sister prefers pastel colors on her Western European-style ones. Unlike her uptight, somewhat repressed sister, St. Pete’s revels in her winding canals, good food and her extravagant displays of money and power.
As N and I made our way from the train station to our Airbnb apartment, we immediately noticed a difference in the mood of this Russian city compared to Moscow. It immediately felt safer for us as lesbians (we saw many queer people during our stay), the people in general were friendlier and most importantly, there were signs in English EVERYWHERE.
This made things a lot easier. Gone were the days where we had to stand in front of a store trying to decipher the Cyrillic so we could find a drugstore (аптека) or a hotel (гостиница), or go through menu items so we wouldn’t order yet another dish with potatoes (картошка) or cabbage (капуста). We were able to walk down the street without constantly trying to read the Cyrillic because we had no other options, and it was such a relief.
However, English signs in a non-English-speaking city also means hordes of tourists. We felt like we weren’t really in Russia anymore, and while it was a relief to have made it safely across, it was also a little sad to know that from now on, it would get more and more touristy the further we went west. We knew going into this trip that we were traveling through Europe in the height of the tourist season, but we were spoiled by being one of very few tourists going across Russia from the east (most go from west to east), and suddenly we had to share Russia with the rest of the world.
And share with the world we did. Robert, N and I waited for over an hour in one of two lines to get into the Hermitage, Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace and currently home to painting masterpieces from around the world. You’d think that Russia’s most famous museum would have more than two ticket windows but no. The woman working our counter – with a huge, classy lily tattooed on her chest – could not give a shit that there were hundreds of people lined up, anxiously waiting to see great art. So if you go, go right when it opens or buy advance tickets online. It might be a little more expensive, but it’ll end up saving you a ton of time.
If you want to see over-the-top, St. Petersburg is your city for two of the gaudiest, completely overdone places: the Hermitage and Peterhof. I’ll get to the latter in a minute. The Winter Palace is gilded everywhere: on the ceilings, doors, walls, furniture… Decorative tables, chairs and wall-hangings are also on display to show Catherine II’s excessive lifestyle.