Archives for the month of: October, 2010

Originally published on facebook –  October 28, 2010 at 3:48am ·

Hue – day 19

We tried to get up early with the idea of renting motorbikes to get to the DMZ (demilitarized zone) for the day. On the road by 9am, I’m on the back of Anders bike and he was a superstar making me feel very comfortable there. I’ve been nervous about motorbikes since a tumble I took in Greece back when I was 19. We made it out of the city easily and took a couple rest stops on the way, Saw a thermometer at some point which read 39 degrees, HOT! We needed to travel about 100km to get to the Vihn Moc tunnels, our first goal. We stopped for lunch at a small town, not even a town really, near where we thought the tunnels would be. Some roadside cafe/foo place where the specialty was Beef Pho. It took some work but we managed to get it made without beef (even though the broth was pork) I think the guy who cooked for us thought we were a little weird to not want beef though. He gave us Vietnamese tea which was excellent, very refreshing. The food was pretty tasty though my mouth felt greasy for a few hours afterward, my stomach didn’t feel great either but handled it ok. the best part was that 3 guys came in while we were eating, friends of the chef come to gawk at the crazy travelers I think. Though we couldn’t really speak with them we did manage to communicate a bit through smiles. One man showed me how he was missing the tips of all his fingers on one hand, “bomb” he told me. I said “fucking war” and he laughed like crazy agreeing with me I think. He had a tattoo on his arm of 2 doves intertwined, I touched it and told him I liked it, flashed the peace sign. Got big smiles for that. We asked for and got perfect directions for the last few km to the tunnels, with many smiles and handshakes all round we set off.

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We found the tunnels and paid the entrance fee, we were directed to an entrance but without a guide. As soon as I saw the entrance I got a feeling of dread up my spine. we went in and right away I felt really uncomfortable. It was very narrow and low and hot and I felt the weight of the earth above me keenly. I felt really jumpy and uneasy and it got hard to breathe really quickly. After about a dozen meters there were stairs carved out of the rock leading down and my brain just shut down, no way. I needed to get out, NOW. I told the boys I couldn’t do it, didn’t even wait for their response just turned around and got the hell out as fast as I could. Back outside my heart started to calm down and the air felt wonderful. I went into the museum and saw the displays of what life was like for the Vietnamese who lived and died in the tunnels during the war. There was a guest-book I read through it and the few entries that were in English praised the ingenuity, resourcefulness, courage and heart shown by the Vietnamese people. I wandered around the site outside, seeing the entrances to a few more tunnels, the trails that are dug deep and lined with concrete and quite a few bomb craters. I felt disappointed with myself for not going on in the tunnels and yet relived that I wasn’t down there at that moment. I was so surprised by the way I felt in there, I didn’t even know what to do with it, I never anticipated feeling uneasy, have never felt claustrophobic in my life and was so surprised by the reaction of my body and mind. I hope this prepared me so that when I am in Saigon I can try to go to the other tunnels that are there, they are not as good apparently, having been altered from their original form a bit but I will try anyways.

I met up with the guys after a bit and they told me about it and showed me some pictures. It was 3pm already and we had another 100km drive to get home so we got back on the bikes to get to it. We thought about making a detour to the National Cemetery on the way back to Hue but by the time we got to the turn off we could tell rain was threatening so we pressed on. About an hour outside of Hue the rain hit and it started to get dark we decided to stop for a break and pulled over at a small street cafe. A lot of these cafes are family run and it’s actually the porch in front of their house that is the cafe, that was the situation here. A woman and her young son  were there and we tried to order coffee without condensed milk, tricky. She obviously didn’t get a lot of travelers and I had to come into the kitchen with her to help her make it, I thought she had it too but she somehow snuck a bunch of sugar into the cups when I wasn’t looking. Back at the table Anders raised the question of whether the coffee was made with safe water, I figure it would be ok, Alex did too and we toasted each other and downed it, Anders soon followed suit. The sweet lady offered us some Vietnamese tea, which is really what we should have gone for in the first place, and we all heartily accepted. As we were drinking our tea her young daughter rode in on her bicycle. Soon after the little boy came up and placed a folded piece of paper in front of me on the table. I opened it and in perfect penmanship it said “Hello, what is your name?” I scrawled back in my less then perfect writing, “Laila, what is your name?” I never got a response and I didn’t get to keep the paper either. But I did get to say goodbye to the girl as we left, I shook her hand, her mothers and the little boys too, incredibly sweet.

Back on the bikes for the final stretch, we arrive at the hotel filthy,wet and sunburned, great day. After showers we got out for dinner, drinks and some pool, turns into a late night, tons of fun.

Hue to Hoi An – day 20

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Got a morning bus to Hoi An, great bus with beds side by side , nice and big and long and we all stretch out and nap most of the way. Got a great room in Hoi An, wandered a little bit in town and had dinner. At dinner we tried one of the specialties of the region, White Rose. They are kinda like Ha Gow, shrimp wrapped in white rice noodle and steamed with a dipping sauce, we all love it. We get convinced by a bar tout to try out the Sun Bar, he promises it is 100% excellent. Once we are on the motorbikes for the free ride to the bar he backpedals and says, well, maybe 99% excellent…uh oh. At the bar it’s super loud and only tourists, we stay because there is a pool table and free vodka shots, lots and lots of free vodka shots. I “discover” the “baby bucket” a mixture of vodka, coke and lemon in a jar with a lid and a straw sticking out of it. I decide it is the perfect drunks drink as it is virtually unspillable. Another late late night, I’m beginning to think that traveling with two 24 year old guys might be the death of my liver.

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Hoi An – days 21, 22, 23 & 24.

Day 21 is a bit of a write off for all of us, I try to get some shopping done but am too hungover and end up with the boys lounging in our room watching stupid movies on tv, we only venture out to eat.

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Day 22 it’s raining we go wandering through town, Anders orders 5 pairs of custom made running shoes, Alex orders 1 and I order a bunch of stuff I can’t tell you about because they are Christmas gifts. At some point Alex and I lose Anders. We look for him where we think he might be but he’s not so we decide to hang out by the river and eat some late lunch. We have Cao Lo, another specialty of the region, it’s only made here because the noodles are made with water from the Bai Lo well, located nearby. It’s noodles with herbs and veg and seafood, the sauce is superb, kinda cinnamony or something, we are not sure but ti is so good. We hang out here for quite some time, hiding from the rain and we start to drink beer (I know, me, drink beer, it really happened, 5 beers actually, a record for me). We are joined at some point by a guy I met on Cat Ba, Pawel from Poland. He joins in the beer drinking and we get hungry again so we order some White Rose and a Seafood Hot Pot for us all to share, yum. We sit and talk about everything under the sun, politics, religion, love, human nature, etc. It’s lovely. Before Alex and I know it we’ve spent 5 hours in this restaurant and figure we should go and find Anders. We pay up the bill and start to walk beside the river to go back to the hotel, we’ve gone about 3 stores down and we see Anders sitting in a restaurant. We join him for a couple beers and then Alex and I are restless, we want to go out, Anders says he’ll join us in a bit so Alex and I head back to Sun Bar. It sucks as badly as it did the other night but I chat with people anyways. We enjoy a few free shots, a couple baby buckets and some pool and then catch a motorbike taxi back to our hotel, Anders never joined us.

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Day 23 is the boys last day in Hoi An they are heading down to Nha Trang a day ahead of me, I’ll meet up with them there. The weather is still crap but we run chores picking up our custom stuff, doing a little more shopping and sitting and eating an awful lot. The boys catch a bus at 6:30pm and I take myself out for a lovely dinner where I try Vietnamese pancakes for the first time (not the last). It’s a rice flour pancake fried with shrimp and beansprouts inside. It comes served with rice paper wraps,fresh herbs and satay sauce, I ask my server how to eat it and he shows me. I cut the pancake in half, wrap it up inside the rice paper with some of the fresh herbs and then dip in the satay sauce, incredible! The pancake is rather small and I start wishing I had ordered more when mama-san comes running out of the kitchen with another pancake on her spatula, she slides it onto my plate and winks at me. after the second one I’m feeling pretty good, and then she comes out with one more, heaven, I’m stuffed silly.

Day 24 I sleep late, pick up my final items and spend a ridiculous amount of money to ship them home, must stop doing this. On the bus at 6:30pm for an overnighter to Nha Trang. Top bunk of course but at least my other pair of Havianas didn’t get stolen this time.

Nha Trang – day 25

Arriving at 6am is not nice. I shake off the hotel touts and head out to find some food before I get a hotel. That taken care of I know the area the guys are in so I find a beautiful room on the 4th floor of a building 1/2  block from the beach, I have a massive bathroom and a stunning view. Pleased. I nap for a couple hours and meetup with the boys for lunch. Anders heads off on a motorbike for the day and Alex and I laze around on the beach. In the late afternoon we go far a little walk through town. It’s actually a fairly large city, I don’t like it very much, it seems to be pretty much a party town for tourists. we discover baguette sandwich carts and fall in love with them. Alex tries 2 different carts, at one he gets the meatwich and at the second he follows my lead and gets the egg. It’s a freshly scrambled egg stuffed inside a warmed baguette with cucumber, tomato, and fresh herbs. The baguette is liberally squirted with soy sauce and chili sauce and it is delicious, I’m grinning from ear to ear eating it and Alex laughs at me a lot. Back to the beach I read a bit while Alex joins in a soccer game with some locals. It gets dark and we head back to the hotels to freshen up and meet Anders so we can go for dinner.

We pick a street stall where we can point at what we want to eat, it’s decent and super cheap. Later we head out for just a “couple” drinks and some pool as we have to be up early the next morning for the bus to Mui Ne. Of course it ends up being more then just a couple drinks and we are all happy and starving as we head back to the hotel. Luckily we stumble across another baguette stall, the boys have 2 each, I only need the one and it’s soooo tasty. We need this in Vancouver instead of greasy pizza at 3 am.

Nah Trang to Mui Ne – day 26

Up at 6:30 am for a 7:30m bus we grab a quick breakfast of (you guessed it) egg baguettes and coffee. We eat it waiting for the bus and when we get on are practically the only passengers, we commandeer a row of seats each and sleep our way through the next 5 hours to Mui Ne. We find a great hotel/bungalow. It not on the beach because those are quite expensive but it’s brand spanking new, there are still stickers on the toilet, sink and fridge. Mui Ne is really just a stretch of road about 20km long with large resorts on the beach side and smaller guest houses and restaurants on the other. Right now is just the very beginning of the busy season so it’s slow and lazy, I can see that it will be pretty busy during the high season. Kite surfing is huge here and lots of places are offering to teach it, something I will definitely NOT try when I come back (I have had a job offer).

Mui Ne – day 27 to 36

We spend the next couple days being quite lazy. There is a typhoon up north right now and the weather is rainy a lot of the time. When it’s nice we hang on the beach and when it’s not we hang in restaurants, the guys eat like it’s going out of style. We play lots of cards and read, update journals etc. I meet a guy who runs a yoga studio here and he offers me a job. The guys leave after a couple days, they are heading to Saigon briefly before moving into Cambodia because their visas are running out. I’ve had my visa renewed so figure I will hang out here for a bit. Big hugs to the boys, it’s been fun.

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I’ve been taking yoga classes and even taught one to give Lex (the boss) and idea of what I do, he likes it and renews his job offer so I figure to come back here at the end of January 2011 to stay for a minimum of 2 months, cool. I’ve meet a few great people and the weather has improved. It’s been all too easy to loose whole days here, lovely town. I’ve eaten snake (it’s rubbery and kinda tasteless, but it was a small snake so maybe the big ones are better, will give it another try for sure) I’ve drank rice wine (Vietnamese vodka) with snake blood in it. Discovered lots of good restaurants, read some books and generally had a very relaxing fun time. I’m leaving here tomorrow to go to Saigon where I will be for Halloween. A couple of the people I’ve met here are going as well and we already have a party invite, should be good, just need to find a costume now.

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originally published on facebook –  October 28, 2010 at 1:51am ·
Cat Ba to Ninh Binh – day 16

Up early and on the bus to Ninh Binh. I sit right up front, behind the driver, not actually the best choice as there is a metal bar wedged in front of me and when the driver gets in he wrenches his seat back as far as it can go. I’m short but still feel cramped. I stick my feet out sideways and prop them on the padded engine cover, I get told off for this because I’m still wearing my flip-flops, bare feet are acceptable to put anywhere but not my shoes apparently. Good lesson. I also discover that my ipod is gone, either lost or stolen at some point during my stay on Cat Ba (big,big bummer). The bus arrives in Ninh Binh in the mid-afternoon and I find a hotel pretty quickly and check out train vs. bus prices for the next leg of my journey. Have some cheap food and got introduced to a side of Vietnam I hadn’t seen very much of so far, sincere friendliness. Also bananas as dessert for “free, no money”, love it. I have wifi in my hotel and hook up with Alex and Anders (from Cat Ba) via facebook, we arrange to meet up in the morning.

Ninh Binh – day 17

Meet up with the boys and we rent bikes with the plan to ride about 10km out of town to the Trang An Caves/Riverboats. Riding out of town on our bikes is a little nerve jangling at first, horns are always blaring and on a bike you are the littlest, least important guy on the road. Fortunately the road leading to the caves is big (and dusty) but not very busy. We see rice paddies and limestone karsts rising out of them, on one we spot a goat climbing over the impossibly steep sides as if it’s nothing, he’s nibbling trees and vegetation, pictures are a must.

We pass by a pagoda and decide to take a look. We pedal our bikes down the path to the gate and run into Dave, an Irish guy who is staying at the some hotel as me. He’s been waiting an hour for someone to come and open the gate. Alex solves the issue by climbing over the wall and unbolting the door, it feels a little unorthodox but we all go in anyways. It was lovely and small and fairly typical of others I have seen but quite nice. Dave decides to join us for the day and we get back on our bikes, lock the gate behind us and head off again. Just around the next corner is a little restaurant, we decide to stop. The only customers besides us are a couple of Vietnamese guys drinking beer. We get lots of attention and are presented with an English menu. It’s much smaller then the one in Vietnamese and our options are goat, goat and vegetarian. We opt for veggie and have some fried rice, spinach with garlic and noodles with veg, it’s decent and cheap.

Back on the bikes it’s a beautiful sunny day and we continue to try to find the boats. We end up pedaling right past it and going 3km further down the road then we needed to. Every schoolchild and lots of adults say hello to us and wave, probably their one word of English, I never get tired of it. Once again I am noticing the difference in the friendliness of the people here compared to everywhere else I have been so far, it’s lovely and a relief as I was starting to feel a little cynical about being seen as a walking wallet. We realize our mistake and backtrack, finding the boats this time. Dave decides to opt out because he’s already seen the other caves (Tam Coc) and doesn’t want to spend the (overpriced) entrance fee, fair enough. Alex, Anders and I pile into our small boat. I’m wearing shorts and I am told to cover my legs, I’m not sure if it’s because of mosquitoes, fear I will get sunburned or to show respect, no matter, I pull out my trusty shawl, drape it around my legs and everyone seems satisfied.

Our rowboat lady starts off, she’s not a big girl but god she’s strong. The river is beautiful, this area is described in Lonely Planet as “the Halong Bay of the rice paddies”, it certainly is. We paddle for a bit, surrounded by the karsts and then start to head into our first cave. Our rower has us sit in the bottom of the boat and a good thing too as the ceilings are very low. As we navigate through the twists and turns we have to duck and swerve around formations that hang almost as low as the water. We can touch the limestone all around us and we can help the rower steer by pushing and pulling on the rocks and walls. We take pictures, lots of pictures and I’m sure only a few of them will turn out. It’s difficult to get good shots because there are only a few light bulbs hanging widely spaced from the ceilings. We travel through a series of caves, I lose count. Sometime we emerge from one cave to find ourselves surrounded on all sides by steep rising limestone cliffs, the only way out is through another cave, it’s quite awesome. Our rower shows us how she can also row with her feet, in case her arms get tired, it looks quite odd, she’s got surprisingly agile toes, little weird actually. In all our journey takes about 2 hours.

Back on our bikes for the ride back to town it’s getting dark and there aren’t any lights on the road at first. This means the bugs are out in force and we feel them hitting our faces as we ride back, not so pleasant. I keep my mouth tightly shut so as not to eat any and mostly succeed. Once we are back in town I see a road sign that stops me in my tracks, it’s a trumpet with a red circle/slash over it. I don’t get it at first and say, it’s a no trumpeting sign, the boys have a good laugh at me and explain it’s a no horns sign. I still have to take a picture however this is another photo I can never show you as at some point soon I lost/have stolen my camera case with the full memory card inside.

We make it back to the hotel and get showered. The boys and I have decided to travel together for a bit and we have booked an open bus ticket that allows us to hop down the coast at whatever speed we like until we hit Nha Trang. Or first journey is tonight, an overnighter to Hue, about 12 hours. We get on the bus around 10:30pm and are all separated into different bunks, the bus is full. There are bottom and top bunks, the beds are pretty narrow and short and each one has a plastic box at the end of it for your feet to go into. I fit into it ok (top bunk of course) but poor Alex is about 6’4″ tall and has size 13 feet, he can’t even get his foot to fit inside the box, poor guy. We all spend a fairly uncomfortable night, and are not feeling rested when we arrive in Hue in the morning.

Hue – day 18

Off the bus at 10am, we are immediately swarmed by hotel touts. Overnight my Havianas have disappeared, bummer. To get away from the touts we go for some coffee and breakfast before facing finding a hotel. We find a place called the Mandarin Cafe about a block away. It’s great and run by a guy called Mr. Cu, who is a fantastic photographer, his pictures cover the walls of the cafe. He is also very generous with his information, telling us we could book a tour of the DMZ but it’s easy to do it ourselves if we want to. We like him. We find a hotel after breakfast, great room,shower, clean, yay.

We’re all pretty wasted after our bus ride, the guys want to just hang out and have some beers, I decide I want to get some “culture”. I arrange a motorbike and driver to take me to 5 locations, all in just a few hours. Tu Hieu Pagoda, Bunker Hill, Tomb of Tu Duc, Thien Mu Pagoda and the Citadel. Tu Hieu was in the forest, there are lots and lots of tombs scattered all over the place. It’s very pretty but I didn’t get much of a sense of the place. Moving on to Bunker Hill, I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t even know whose bunkers they were so I asked my driver to tell me a little about it. His English wasn’t great but from what I understand the bunkers were built in the 1880’s to fight the French who had set up their own bunkers on a hill on the other side of the Perfume River. Not really a lot to see here, you can’t go inside the bunkers so they just look kinda like lumps of concrete. However the view of the Perfume River is stunning, I could see it winding off a long ways in both directions.

Next off to Tu Duc’s tomb, a let down actually. Very old and rumbling which was actually cool but it was quite barren, it seemed like all the life had been stripped out of it. A few areas were closed off due to “danger”. Mostly it was just empty buildings and tombs, of which I have already seen quite a lot of and could have done for free. Oh well. My second to last stop is Thien Mu Pagoda, this is the “famous” one you might have seen in images of Vietnam. It also was the home pagoda to Thich Quang Duc who burned himself to death in 1963 to protest against the policies of then President Ngo Dinh Diem. He was driven to the place he choose to stage his protest in a car which is now on display at the pagoda. In pictures of the event you can see the same car in the background behind his flaming body. This place was quite busy and touristed yet I really enjoyed it and felt that lovely presence which I’ve spoken of before. In the pagoda there was a monk wandering around, he had a lovely gentle face and demeanor, I’m assuming he was there keeping an eye on the tourists as there was an area inside the pagoda that was designated “for meditation only”. I went in there and knelt before Buddha, took some time with my eyes closed and allowed the serenity of the place to wash over me, blissed.

I couldn’t stay long though as I knew I was running out of time to get to the Citadel before it closed. Hopped back on the bike to try to get there in time but made it literally a minute too late, closed. I had the driver take me back to my hotel and met up with the boys. I found them much as I had left them, though maybe more inebriated. They had spent the day hanging around the river drinking beer with some Vietnamese guys, learning how to “cheers” in Vietnamese – “yo”. We had some dinner and I decided to sample the Vietnamese wine Vang Dalat. Was pretty good actually and though we had meant to have an early night we somehow made it through 3 bottles.

Originally published on facebook – October 22, 2010 at 6:59am ·

 HANOI – day 9 & 10.

A quiet day sitting in a coffee shop with wifi and western food. Drinking a cappuccino, heaven. I updated lots for you folks and got my journal current. Mailed gifts home, (Dad and Sharman, expect them in about 2-3 weeks, but don’t open until Christmas)  and spent about $90 usd dollars doing it, oops, from now on I am buying only really small things and carrying as much as I can in my backpack so gifts might be a little slim on Christmas morning we’ll see.

Had been thinking I would join a tour of Halong Bay but at the last minute I got inspired to just go to Cat Ba Island (in Halong Bay) and do it myself so……

IN TRANSIT – day 11.

Got up early to get a bus from Hanoi’s Gai Lam station. 9am bus to Halong City which Lonely Planet said should take 3 hours. The 9 am bus left promptly at 9:20 and then broke down before we actually left the station. I am steered to another bus which ends up leaving at 10am (or thereabouts). The bus is small and dirty, when I toss my backpack onto the seat a cloud of dust rises, no surprises. Almost as soon as I get on, before the bus even gets moving, I hear retching noises and realize that there is a woman throwing up into a plastic bag a few seats in front of me, great. She hands the bag off to her neighbor in the window seat who promptly throws it out the window of the (still unmoving) bus. Her friend in another seat soon joins in the vomiting chorus once we are moving and I resort to wearing my ipod so I can’t hear the noises. They have stuck me in the very back seat, it’s very bouncy, and my big pack is crammed between my seat and the seat in front of me, no room at all for my legs, I’m traveling sideways for the next few hours. This is supposed to be a 3 hour bus ride to Halong city where I hope to catch a 5 hour tour boat to Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay. Except with the 45 minute lunch break we take (where I don’t eat thinking we’ll be in Halong any second) and the constant stopping and starting so the bus tout can try to get people on board it takes 5 hours.

I am waved off the bus at the side of the highway where a group of motorcycle taxis are waiting. I have no choice I have to get on one, no helmet for me. I tell him it’s my first time and to please be nice, he is. He puts my big pack between his knees, I wear my small one. He tells me to hold onto him so I do and we take off. I ask him to take me to the boats for Cat Ba but he mumbles something about low water and takes me to a hotel. There they tell me that there aren’t any more boats today, it’s 3pm. I ask about going to Haiphong and whether I could get a boat from there today and they tell me yes. So I pay for another taxi (car this time) and head to the bus station.

Once at the bus station I buy a ticket and get waved around a lot. There is not much attempt to talk to me, rather there is a wave over the shoulder for me to follow or a gesture towards some general direction I’m supposed to go in. It’s helpful enough but always leaves a question in my mind…am I going where I actually want to go? On the bus from Halong City to Haiphong I get put in the backseat again (do you think this is on purpose?) it’s very bouncy and my spine is feeling compressed from the day already. I watch a mother pull her 3 year old sons pants down and  wrap a plastic bag around his penis so he can pee, and yup…she throws it out the window of the moving bus. Mental note: be very, very aware of flying plastic bags when alongside buses.

I get to Haiphong around 5pm, another motorcycle taxi. I neglect to mention I am new to this and he is classically maniacal. I just breathe and think that if this is the way I’m going to go then it’s not so bad, I’m traveling, doing something I love. I become accepting of the idea of my imminent death and am calm. At least I had a helmet this time, maybe I’ll just be permanently maimed. I feel so sure I am going to die that I am surprised when he pulls up to the place I can buy a ticket for the boat. But I’ve just missed their last one, they send us somewhere else, I’ve missed it too. I am stuck in Haiphong for the night. I buy a ticket for the first boat in the morning and get the driver to take me to the closest hotel which happens to be listed in my Lonely Planet as being “a good deal, small but clean” both of these points turn out to be debatable. $14 and a funny smell, but it’s within easy walking distance of the boat in the morning so I take it.

I’m starving and venture out of the hotel in the dark for some cheap eats….street food please. I find a stall and ask for anything “an chay” (eat vegetarian). I get a steamed rice crepe/noodle thing, made fresh in front of me on a big pot of boiling water with a tight skin over top for the “pan”. They cut it up with scissors and give me a dipping broth of some sorts. It’s not bad but not really very healthy. I dig in anyways and sing it’s praises to the chef, for .50 cents I’ll eat almost anything and it’s the closest I’ve come to a real meal all day. A little girl of 9 starts practicing her schoolgirl English on me. She tells me her mother is the woman who served me and her grandmother is the cook, neither look old enough to fill these roles but I go with it and smile a lot. I finish my meal and beat, I head back to my room for the night. No energy to explore the city, I haven’t been able to sleep on the buses at all (unusual for me), maybe because it was so bouncy my head kept getting knocked around if let it rest on the seat back. I have cable and get good use of it, becoming like vegetable for the rest of the evening.

Cat Ba Island – days 12, 13, 14.

I almost oversleep but make it to the ferry on time, only to be told that it’s broken down. I’m on the next one an extra 45 minute wait which gives me time for Nescafe at a street stall. The ferry is only about 10 minutes late leaving (pretty good) but once we start out I quickly realize there is no way we are getting there in the 45 minutes advertised. I’m right, it takes 70. No biggy but it’s kinda dull as there’s not much scenery until the last 10 minutes or so.  We approach Cat Ba Island from the west, heading to Cat Ba town which is on the south of the island. Most of the karst formations that make Halong Bay so famous are located up the east and north sides of the island.The few karsts I do see on the way are like mounds of limestone rising straight up out of the ocean. The vegetation on them starts around midway up and thickens towards the top. At water level the base is eroded so the big mound stands on a smaller base, some of them look quite like they could topple over at any moment. As we arrive in Cat Ba harbour there are hundreds of fishing boats (trawlers I think, though perhaps squid boats, not sure, they have rows of lights on them). They are all tied up alongside each other, in rows of 10 or even more. Ahead of me the town is visible and the buildings are all tall and narrow, like everything else I have seen so far. Not too much to be excited about, the town seems run down and a little seedy.

Off the boat a woman hands me a card for her hotel, $6 per night for my own oceanfront room with a balcony and a shower. I take it, good deal. There is a posher guesthouse in town called the Noble House, I have to check it out because I love James Clavell. It’s very nice and has a restaurant and a bar upstairs with a pool table and foosball. It becomes a place I hang out in at night, meeting other travelers. Only 1/2 a block from where I am staying it is easy and safe for me to walk home at night by myself. I spend a couple lazy days, really tired for some reason. Updated FB and photos, the weather has not been playing nice, grey and rainy most of the time. No tanning here darn it. I meet a variety of people, among them, Freya and Kane who are Canadians who live in Grand Cayman (super nice, very cool people) and Alexander and Anders from Denmark.

View from my hotel room of Cat Ba Harbour….

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On day 14 I do a 1/2 day tour of Cat Ba National park. Unfortunately it’s pretty much a waste of time. The forest is uninspiring and overly trodden. There were upwards of 20 Taiwanese people on the trail up with us and tons more as we were coming back down. Didn’t see a single animal or bird, anything living has long been scared away. Once we got to the top of the trail the view was nice but we were stuck in a pretty small area with some loud, though very friendly Taiwanese. On the hike with me were Joanna and Pawel, travelers from Poland and we got along well. Their friend Titus was back on their boat recovering from a wee bit too much alcohol the night before. They were good company. After the hike while we were waiting for our bus to take us back Pawel brought out the Vietnamese version of hacky sack. It’s a bunch of plastic discs joined together with a feather coming out of the top. We played and lots of people joined in and out, great way to break the ice with the Vietnamese, something which is much harder for me as a woman to do then it is for a man.

Back at my hotel I take a little nap and take myself out for dinner. I end up getting a Vietnamese massage at my table by this funny little man. It’s not the best I’ve ever had but good and I gave him just over a dollar for about 15 minutes. Worth it, yup. I head to the Noble House after and play some pool with Alex and Anders and a guy I had met in Haiphong waiting for the boat, Jan.

Cat Ba Island – day 15

I booked a day long tour on a boat to see the karsts. A bus takes 5 of us early in the morning to where the boat will launch from. We definitely have the “junkiest junk” of the junks I have seen, oh well. I start the introductions, Damien and Ninnie(?) from Belgium, Natasha from New Zealand and Santi from Spain. The weather is not ideal, cloudy, and we’re sure to get rain throughout the day though the sun tries hard a few times. We cruise our way up the east side of Cat Ba Island, into Halong Bay, taking loads of pictures, the memory card with those photos was either lost or stolen but people have been kind and sent me some of theirs so I do have some pictures to share,. The karsts are really quite amazing, even through the fog and mist. Santi, Natasha and I get on well, the Belgians are a bit more reserved but very pleasant.

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We’re taken to Sung Sot Cave (Cave of Surprises). It is apparently the biggest and finest cave in Halong Bay, also highly touristed. It actually got its name from the French, who called it grotte des surprises, or grotto of surprises. It is located on Bo Hon Island, near the centre of Halong Bay. There is a small pier where boats dock to allow visitors down. From the pier, a flight of 50 stone steps takes us to the entrance of the cave. The inside of Sung Sot Cave is simply cavernous. At many places the ceiling is low, and takes on a wavy appearance. A profusion of stalactites and stalagmites cover the walls. Multi-coloured lights have been installed to beautify the cave and bring out its grandeur. Coming out of the cave, visitors get a panoramic view of Bo Hon Bay below. It is THE iconic view of Halong Bay that has appeared in many postcards.

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After our tour of the cave we head down to our junk for some lunch, it’s been prepared by our guide on board as we cruised. We have fried spinach (water greens) with garlic, prawns, clams in lemon, fish and fresh tomato and carrot with a super spicy chili and garlic sauce for dipping. Yum. We continue to cruise while we are eating and after everyone goes for a little lay down, some nap. We’re taken to a small, secluded beach on one of the many islands, it’s only accessible by water. The captain anchors offshore and we all jump in. I’m the first one in the water and quite proud of myself for not being chicken about jumping into deep ocean water. I realize that it’s my first time in the waters of Vietnam, and that I am swimming amongst the karsts, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Good feeling. I try to take it all in and almost forget to wish it was sunny. We all swim towards the small beach, the boys try snorkeling but the sea is too deep green for them to see anything. I’m the first one to the beach and once out of the water it’s a little chilly. But the sand is golden, we are the only ones anywhere nearby and it feels almost pristine and prefect except for the ever-present bits of garbage (shame). There are large and small rock formations gathered on the on the narrow beach. Rock walls climb up directly out of the sand, it looks impossible to climb. We theorize that pirates must have loved this place, almost 3,000 islands and karsts all with tiny caves, inlets etc to hide their treasures. I collect a few pretty shells and tuck them inside my bikini top for the swim back to the boat. Chuffed I swam in deep water with only a little fear and so appreciative of the natural beauty surrounding me.

Back on the boat we rinse off with a little “sweet water” from a big barrel on deck. Still wet, I’m a little chilly but stay in my bikini as our next stop is to kayak. Within about 20 minutes we are there. Santi and I are are teamed up in one kayak, the Belgium couple in another and Natasha is on her own. We start paddling and Santi and I are a terrible team, we can’t make our kayak go straight so we zig-zag our way through the islands. We are a source of much hilarity, to ourselves and the others, it’s great fun. Our captain has told us we only have half and hour to explore but we figure he can’t really leave without us so we decide to stretch it out a little longer. We paddle around, watch rock climbers soloing over the water and falling in once they feel the need to get off the rock. We paddle through an arch under a very bumpy and peculiar looking karst, we meander around the floating houses of a fish farm and get barked at by the dogs. We stumble into a beautiful little sheltered bay where karsts surround us on all sides except the one we entered and the only other way out is through a 4 foot wide gap over very shallow water. We pause here and all take a few moments to appreciate the gorgeousness of this spot and to acknowledge how privileged we all feel to be here in this situation, for maybe just this one time in our lifetimes. We’re all pretty blissed out. Santi and I discuss weather there is enough depth to the water for us to go forward, he doesn’t think so but I do and the others say go for it so we do and glide over easily, we’re getting a bit better at steering now, sort of. We are heading back to the boat and I realize I haven’t done the one thing I visualized when I first thought of kayaking amongst the karsts, I tell Santi about it and say it’s a silly thing but he’s all for doing silly things so we go for it. We glide up to one of the karsts and work our kayak sideways so that we can slide right underneath the overhang, as we paddle towards the rock wall I look up and see the side of the rock disappear above me, blocked out by the overhang, we are underneath the rock. I reach out to touch it, which is what I wanted to do and then notice that the wall is scrambling with sea lice. Ewww. Guess we should have chosen a spot further away from a fish farm, we’re both kind of grossed out but still I reach out a tentative finger and poke the wall, Santi does the same. We laugh at each other but technically it’s done. Satisfied we paddle towards the others and meet up with our junk who has come looking for us. We drop off the kayaks, climb on board and into dry clothes and then start the ride home. We all feel great, had lots of laughs with the kayaks and some incredible experiences throughout the day. On the way back we pass through a floating village of fish farms, fishing boats and houses.

Back at the dock I see a group of Vietnamese guys playing the feather version of hacky sack, I join them and they seem a little surprised because I’m a girl but the let me join and seem pleased when I hit it back to them. Santi joins in as well and we kick it around for about 15 minutes until our bus arrives. Later after showers we all meet up at an “expensive” restaurant where I treat myself to a $5 glass of wine. (big, big treat). After we head to the Noble House for some pool and drinks. We’re all pretty exhausted and by 8pm it feels like 11pm. The others fade off and I play some pool with a couple Vietnamese guys, we’re all mediocre so it’s fun and friendly. Alex and Anders show up, we chat a bit and realize we are all heading to Ninh Binh tomorrow so we make plans to get in touch once we are there. Soon I am off to pack and get to bed before I fall asleep standing.

Originally published on facebook –  October 1, 2010 at 6:25am ·

HANOI – day 6.

Back in Hanoi, we arrive by train at 5am, rapping on the door and obnoxiously loud Asian music playing, lovely. I search out some crappy coffee on the train and then we have arrived at the station. I meet up with everyone on the platform and we find a taxi large enough to take all 5 of us and our packs to the hostel. It’s raining buckets and we’re all soaked pretty quickly. Reception at the hostel doesn’t open until 6pm so we wait around in the lobby with some other refugees all of us dozing, dazed and dreamy. I wrangle a dorm bed but can’t get into it until 8am, others are not so lucky and have to wait until 11am. Some of us (Andy, Len, Beckie, Nicole, who I have found again, yay! and I) decide to check out the Museum of Ethnology and then go in search of the remains of some B52 bombers that were shot down by the Vietnamese during the war. Nicole is a huge asset as she speaks Vietnamese, her skills come in very useful as we navigate by taxi around town for the day. Everyone falls in love with her as quickly as I did, it’s hard not to.

The Museum of Ethnology is interesting, outside are some buildings with written descriptions, one of which is a tomb or burial preparation room. Outside it is surrounded by wooden carved sculptures which are designed to depict all that is needed to have led a good life as well as the things to take with you to the afterlife. There are a surprising number of erect penises and sexual couplings. Everyone, all ages, get the giggles once they realize what they are looking at. We’re all a little punch-drunk form the early morning and agree that we have a hard time reading let alone understanding the written descriptions of what we are seeing. I basically wander around finding photo opportunities, looking for pretty things. Inside the museum it is the same with lots of displays of different ethnicity’s ceremonial clothing but most is behind glass and difficult to photograph.

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We’re all dazed and hungry so decide to cab to the general area of the B52 bombers to get some lunch and then seek them out. we have a fast and cheap lunch at a street stall where we point at what we want to eat and hope for the best, I do well with a bunch of different veggies and some tofu, but the food is just ok. Afterward we set out to find the bombers which are notoriously hard to find. We actually locate the first one quite quickly. It’s sunk into a lake/canal and only looks like a small pile of scrap metal. It’s a bit disappointing as the B52 was a massive machine and these remains don’t do it’s size any justice.

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We move on to try to see the next site. I am not a map reader today and am happy to relinquish control to the others. We get lost and it’s super hot but I keep my mouth shut and leave them to figure it out, I follow the group and happily take pictures to amuse myself. Traveling in a pack can be tricky if you are an Alpha so sometimes it’s better to just let go and let others do the figuring which I readily did today.

We find it eventually, it’s some sort of museum. Outside on the grounds are the remains of the B52 bomber and this time you can really get an idea of the scale of the thing. It really is massive, the tail must be about 30′ high. The ruins are just that, in ruins, but there are some impeccably well maintained large scale guns of Vietnamese origin as well as a Mig 21 fighter plane on a large marble pedestal and 2 gigantic ground launch missiles. We take a quick look through the museum but are all so hot and beat by now that we decide to go to a cafe Nicole found overlooking the Hoan Kiem Lake. It has a good breeze on the covered rooftop patio and we all have cool drinks or coffee to help perk us up a bit. Some of us decide we want to see the Water Puppet show which is nearby, some of us have seen it so we head off in our different directions. I went to see the show but unfortunately the showing we wanted was already sold out, we didn’t want to hang out and wait so we headed back to the hostel for a rest and a shower.

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Later that night I took Andy, Jan Willem, Manon and another girl we met whose name escapes me right now back to my favorite restaurant, Quan An Ngon. I had to run around with the waiter a few times pointing at things we wanted but he was great and we all enjoyed the food very much. Back to the hostel and I was asleep by midnight having said my goodbyes to Jan Willem and Manon who were heading South and to Len and Andy who were headed back home the next day. Hugs all round the world!

HANOI – day 7.

Headed off to do my own thing for most of the day, a little gift shopping for you lucky folks at home, booked a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda for the next day and arranged to meet up with Nicole to see the 5pm Water Puppet show. I’d heard from a few people that the W.P.show was “a bit naff” and that’s probably how I would describe it as well. The puppets are neat to look at but there seem to be only 2 stories actually told, with an infinite variety of variation. In story #1, boy (human, dragon, or phoenix) meets girl of same species, he chases her around for a while and she token resists until eventually she relents and love ensues. Story #2 consists of a hunter or fisherman trying to catch his prey. He chases the prey around for a while, hilarity ensues and he finally victoriously, with great fanfare finally catches it, surprise! There was live music played on a wide variety of traditional instruments with Vietnamese singing. I found listening and watching the musicians much more interesting then the puppetry itself.

After the show we went in search of a street shown on our hostel’s map which is known as the Vietnamese food street. I’m not rely sure how it differs from almost any other street with food stalls all over it but we found a great place with indoor seating and A/C. It was called The Hue which after looking at the menu Nicole figured specialized in food from the city of Hue which is on the Central Southern Coast. The food was awesome, service was great and we left stuffed and very satisfied. Off to bed for a good nights sleep I have a big day tomorrow at the Perfume Pagoda.

HANOI – day 8.

My one week anniversary! I’m celebrating by visiting the Perfume Pagoda. My day starts early as I have to catch the bus at 8am. I arrive and hop on the bus as it starts moving, just made it. On the way out of town we have to stop by the side of the road to wait for somebody who missed the bus to get dropped off with us. I meet a girl from Saigon, Kim, who is standing under a tree outside the bus while we wait. She is eating something and I ask her what it is, she points up and there are little pink fruits the size of a large blueberry on the tree. She picks one for me I try it and it’s wonderful, sweet and juicy it tastes sort of like a grape mixed with a watermelon. She tells me they are called fish eyes. The others arrive so we get on the bus and I promptly pass out for the next 2 hours as we travel to My Duc where we transfer onto small river boats. The boats seat 6 plus the oarswoman who is a tiny little creature with the most awesome strength. She kicks butt on the other rowers overtaking quite a few as we work our way up the wide river towards the mountain pagoda. The boat ride takes about an hour. On the ride Kim tells me that the mountain range we can see is called 99 elephants and once I know this I can see why. They really do look like elephants. Apparently 99 of them all face in the same direction while the 100th is facing the opposite way. We see fishermen hauling up bamboo cages (fish traps) from the water and a few tombs alongside the river that are used by families nearby. There are actually road signs at the rivers’ junctions and it makes sense really because it is like a road.

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After an hour we land at the base of the mountain. We are given an option to walk up 4km of stairs or to take a cable car up the mountain. We all opt for the ride up and I decide I will walk back down. I am the first person waved into a cable car as I am a “single” and I am placed with 5 South Vietnamese tourists who don’t speak very much English and who appear to be laughing at me, perhaps because of the appalling amount of sweat I can produce.

We are let off at the top and I am ahead of my group which I am happy about as I would rather be own my own here anyways. I walk a bit and find the archway that leads to the many stairs that go down to the mouth of the giant cave of the pagoda. At the entrance is a small shrine where people make an offering of incense and have a quick prayer. I work my slowly into the cave taking it all in. I am fascinated by the limestone formations, the stalagmites and stalactites and the few carvings of what I assume are Vietnamese letter characters that appear to be (and probably are) hundreds if not thousands of years old. Down random carved limestone stairs into the main body of the cave it is still massive the roof must be a hundred feet above my head, I see the odd bat flitting about up there. Ahead of me are a series of shrines. At the main one there is a very large collection of golden Buddhas. One one side of the collection they are depicted as aged and elderly, on the other side they all appear young. I overhear a guide telling his group that this is symbolic of the eternal life, the continual death and rebirth of Buddha, I like that. I am awed by this place and the sense of age and respect that almost palpably hangs in the air. I realize that this has a lot to do with the fact that this is a natural space where “God” was discovered and how different this feels to me opposed to a place that is built for the worship of “God” which sometimes feels like maybe he/she/it took some convincing or was sort of coerced or forced into the place we decided was convenient. People recognized in this place that it was special and so treated it accordingly. I like it very much and feel as though I, if I was inclined, could worship here even (or especially) without any sort of shrine except the natural beauty of the space.

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It’s time to start heading down the mountain to meet the others for lunch, I don’t want to miss it as it’s almost 2 pm already and I’m starved. I walk down 4km of stairs and hillside. My knees are wobbly by the time I reach the bottom but I make it in the nick of time for food. I eat quickly as we are only given a short time to check out the man-made but very old pagoda at the bottom of the hill. It ends up being massive and quite beautiful and of course I am fascinated and take forever and end up meeting everyone about 20 minutes late. The guide is calling me “Canada” by now and making jokes that he needs to find me a Vietnamese husband who will teach me how to read a clock. I take a lot of good-natured ribbing in stride and in my uniquely Canadian way I say sorry about a million times. We head back down the river in our boats and I can tell it’s gearing up to rain.

These are two of my all time favorite statues and I found them tucked away under a tarpaulin!

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On the boat back we hear a dog yelping and whimpering, this can’t be good. Shortly we see two guys carrying a squirming bag hanging from a stick held between them, the yelps are coming from inside the bag…yup, dog for dinner. Kim tells me that it is common in the countryside for dog to be eaten but being from the city she’s never eaten it and wouldn’t. I’m struggling with it, it’s hard to wrap my head around the idea of eating Fido (or Morgan) but I knew coming here that it happens and I just have to be ok with it, different strokes and all that. We are almost back to My Duc when the sky starts to dump down, lucky for me I have my trusty umbrella this time! On the bus ride home most of us pass out again, we arrive back in Hanoi at dusk, damp and tried but I am very content.

Back at the hostel I meet some new people Andy, Johnny and Alex so Nicole and I take them plus a couple other girls whose names I can’t remember back to “our” restaurant. We arrive late and they warn us that not everything on the menu will be available. We try to hurry to choose our meals it’s hard cause the menu is so big. Then it get’s chaotic, different waiters come running up to us saying that certain dishes are not available but they aren’t telling it to the person who ordered it so everything get pretty confused. We do eventually get food but most of us didn’t get what we wanted but at least we got fed, Poor Nicole was run ragged trying to translate for us and help people figure out options, she told off one of the servers who did eventually apologize but it left us a bit dissatisfied with the experience. By 11pm I am back at the hostel, exhausted and to bed.

Originally published on facebook – October 1, 2010 at 6:24am ·
 

HANOI to SA PA, day 3 cont.

 

I haggle my taxi driver down to $35,000 dong from $50,000 and get in. He delivers me safely in the rain from the hostel to the train and I wander in feeling a little lost. Where to go? What to do? And does anyone speak English? The usual feelings. A man approaches me and snatches my ticket from my hand, I’m startled but he waves for me to follow him and leads me to the right pace where my large ticket is exchanged for a small one, I don’t know why. They wave me in some general direction and say platform 6, ok. I find Platform 6, the right car, the right room and finally the right bed. A soft sleeper, it actually isn’t that soft but adequate, top bunk again, figures. I go to climb up to my bed and put my hand on the handle to help pull me up which promptly pulls out of the wall, leaving holes and the very short screws scrape down the flimsy wood leaving marks, sturdy I think. I’m standing there holding the handle and feeling guilty quickly put it out of the way in an upper cubbyhole when I am joined by my roommates for the evening. 3 others, Beckie and Andy from England and Len from New Brunswick. We sit around for a couple hours swapping travel stories and information and then it’s lights out for the 9 hour night train ride.

 

SA PA, day 4.

 

We are awoken by loud music and shouts of “COFF-EY” around 5 am, we have arrived in Lo Cai where we will transfer onto a minibus for a 1 hour ride up into the mountains to Sa Pa. I am sitting next to a guy and girl from the Netherlands (just friends they are quick to tell me) and we get to chatting. She is Manon, he is Jan Willem.  We are treated to views of winding mountain roads and breathtakingly green scenery and my first view of terraced rice paddy mountainside. As well as lots of fog, mist and rain. We arrive at the top of Sa Pa, far from the center of town. We suspect the driver has delivered us to this hotel because he gets a kickback, typical, and inconvenient for us. My new Dutch friends and I naturally gravitate towards each other and decide to search out a hotel closer to the center of town together. We start walking, in the rain.

 

Almost immediately we are beset by a variety of women ranging in age from 11 to 50. They are from the Black Hmong tribe, distinctive in their black or very dark indigo clothing with embroidered white details. They want to know your name, where you are from, how old are you, are you married, do you have brothers and sisters, and oh, will you only buy things from me please? They are tenacious and so very sweet it’s impossible to be rude, but it gets tired very, very quickly.

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We find a hotel, having to walk up 81 steps to get to our rooms. The views are fantastic when we are lucky to catch a glimpse through the pervasive mist and fog. We drop our bags and go in search of coffee and breakfast. We are all feeling fairly spacey after the train and early morning, I decide to spend the day in town checking it out and finding out about guides and treks for the next day, catching up on journaling and even getting on FB. Jan Willem and Manon go off to see the Silver Waterfalls which is apparently heavily touristed so another reason I decide to pass. We meet up later in the day, have dinner and book a guide for the trek I found. Early night to bed, I am freezing under my thin comforter and sleep in layers of clothing.

 

SA PA, day 5.

 

$14usd to pay for our trek. Most guide companies seem to offer the same trek to 3 towns, meaning that it would be overrun and overdone. The one I found seemed a little different, We were to trek 17km through mostly countryside, visiting a typical home on the way and ending up in a small village. It sounded off the beaten path a bit and proved quite good. We are picked up at our hotel at 9am. Our guides name is Trui (pronounced tree) and he is lovely and speaks English very well. We are driven about 5km down the road towards Lo Cai and then dropped at the side of the road.

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We set off across fields of grass and through rice paddies and started up a hill towards a small cluster of buildings that turned out to be a couple of houses and a small school. Lots of little kids around being shy and none of the adults seemed the least bit interested in us even though we were all smiling and doing our best to be friendly, oh well, not everyone can love us. We take a few pictures and I fall in love with a couple water buffalo, I adore their faces and the way their mouths move side to side with the slow chewing they are constantly doing.

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We walked along through the river valley, amazing views of mountains with scattered rice paddy terraces, a river runs through the bottom of the valley alongside us and the mist and fog hung low making everything seem soft and diffused. We go picture crazy. It would have been insanely hot if the skies were clear so we are happy with the fog and only get a little spitting of rain throughout the whole day. Even so we’re roasting and dripping sweat in no time, at least Jan Willem and I are, Manon seems to be one of those beautiful women who just glows gracefully, and Trui is used to it so it barely fazes him. I very much resemble a pig, being slowly roasted.

 

We keep walking and a group of about 8 or 9 small children come running up behind us and then past. As we come around the next corner they are waiting for us, posed perfectly. We oblige and take tons of pictures, showing them the ones of themselves. They seem to get great pleasure out of seeing themselves and scream and laugh enormously when we show them on the camera display. Who could resist this cuteness? Finally we move on and are serenaded by shouts of good-bye as long as we are in sight.

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Soon we reach the point where we are to start going uphill. The trail narrows, becomes steeper, rockier, muddier and oh so slippery. It’s super hard work but I keep thinking about how American GI’s did this and much, much harder stuff while carrying an average of about 90 pounds in their packs, plus the added weight of fear so, ok I’ve got it pretty good here. I am only wearing running shoes as I left my hiking shoes at home thinking that they would be too warm to wear in these climates, I was right they would be very hot but my pristine white shoes are now turned a permanent orangey-brown colour from the mud, besides this they did a fine job. We all are covered in mud up to our knees, except for Trui, he had knee high rubber boots on, clever man stayed lovely and clean all day.

 

We finally reach the top of the hill where Trui leads us into a farmhouse. If I didn’t know better I would think it was an uninhabited, abandoned place, but apparently 12 people live here and call it home. The adults are all out working but there are 5 children at home, the eldest (about 10 years old) taking care of the younger ones, the youngest is just walking. they are terribly shy and I feel awkward being in their home, like I am intruding so I don’t feel right about wandering about and looking too closely at anything. I suspect Manon and Jan Willem feel the same as neither of them snoop either. Trui shows us an ingenious handmade mousetrap and I made him repeat the demonstration so I can video it. Apparently there are larger versions used for hunting rabbits and the like. He also plays for us a traditional wind instrument which sort of sounds like bagpipes, he admits he doesn’t actually know how to play it properly though so perhaps with skill it sounds better.

 

We’ve rested a bit and caught our breath, it’s time to move on. We wave bye to the kids and I take a picture of a little cutie standing half hidden in a doorway, I show her the picture and am rewarded by a huge smile, progress!  My legs are creaking but I know it will get better as long as I keep moving, I am the tortoise I think, slow and steady, I’ll get there eventually. We head across country for a while, not much more uphill thank goodness, following a wider dirt road, giant bamboo forests are on each side of us and we pass scattered small houses, a few people and more water buffalo. I want to touch one but Trui tells me not to try because they are quite timid and will just run away so I don’t but now I’m wishing I had. I do admit to being a bit intimidated by them myself, they are quite large and I wouldn’t want to scare it into running me over in it’s quest to escape.

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I talk with Trui about education in the countryside. The kids start school at age 6 and can go until they are 18 but most either quit early or don’t go at all. Either because they are needed at home to take care of the younger children or because the family doesn’t see the point of education when everything needed for survival is provided by hard work in the rice fields, family farm etc. Also a lot of the girls and women go into town to try to get tourists to buy from them. These are the Black Hmong women who I wrote about earlier. The rice farms feed the family for a whole year. when the rice is not ready to be worked then the men go hunting with their dogs and the women tend the vegetable garden or make embroidery to sell and then go and try to sell it.

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It’s finally time to stop for lunch, Trui leads us up on top of a large rock overlooking the valley, epic views. we have ground chicken cooked with mushrooms in baguettes with tomatoes and cucumber that Trui chops up on the spot, Also small sweet apples and bananas. Yum.

 

Again we walk, starting downhill now and it’s tricky because of the slippyness of the mud. We start to see a few more people and only one asks us to buy anything, she takes no for an answer on the first go which I am thankful for because often they keep following you and asking again and again. It’s tough because you get to a point where you feel you have to ignore them and that is just so dehumanizing, I hate to have to do it but if I bought something from every person that asks I’d be headed home next week, bank account empty, journey over. Downhill takes us a couple hours and is hard work but I make it without ending up on my ass, only a couple of minor slippages. In the town we end up in we are approached by people trying to sell again, same issues as mentioned before. We all agree that it is difficult to keep saying no and to stay polite even after repeated badgering but you don’t get mad in Vietnam, huge loss of face if you do.

 

There is a waterfall nearby and Trui asks if we want to visit it while we wait for our bus. We agree and have to cross a very rickety old suspension bridge. As some of you know from my Central America journals I am not a fan of suspension bridges and this one does the same thing to my knees and stomach all the others have done…….shaky, wobbly. Not for me. But I do it as quickly as possible and Trui helps distract me by telling me about marriage rituals in the Vietnam countryside. A man will see a woman (or girl), maybe at a market where a few villages have met up to trade, sell etc. He will ask around about the girl and if he finds out she is single he will gather a group of friends together and they will “kidnap” the girl and keep her captive for 3 days. She’ll often fight and create a ruckus but in the end she really has no choice but to go. After the 3 days is up she is allowed free and given the choice whether to marry the man or not. If she refuses she is considered unlucky (spoiled goods)and will most likely be somewhat shunned from then on, so she usually agrees (what else can she do?). The man’s family will pay something to the woman’s family, a dowry type situation I think, and then she will go live with her new husbands family, leaving behinds hers. I asked about divorce and he said it was extremely rare, families stayed together until death because of the children. I was curious about other types of marriage and asked if  “love marriages” occur. It’s much more common in the cities and more civilized areas but divorce from this type of marriage is most definitely on the rise.

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At 3:30pm we pile back on board our bus. We start to discuss our plans for the next day and all come to the conclusion that we have pretty much done what we wanted to do in Sa Pa. Since the only way back to Hanoi is on a night train and we don’t want to hang about all the next day waiting for it we decide to try for that night’s train if possible. We have a mad scramble back at the hotel getting packed and showered in time to catch the 5pm bus into Lo Cai for the train.. We will buy train tickets at the station on arrival, we hope. On the bus to Lo Cai Len and Andy get on as well, they have finished their tour of Sa Pa and have tickets for the 8:05pm train. I make the necessary introductions and when we get to Lo Cai at 6pm Len and Andy wait in a cafe while Manon, Jan Willem and I go to get our tickets. It’s chaotic and confusing at the station as usual but we get on the 8:05 train as well. I am on my own, Len and Andy are in a room next door and Manon and Jan Willem are somewhere further down the train. I am rooming with 3 girls from China, only 1 speaks some English for which I am somewhat thankful as I am shattered and we exhaust our conversational abilities fairly quickly so I climb into my top bunk (again!) and am asleep by 9pm.

This boy loved his little wheel toy, we had fun making truck noises together…..

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