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My second day of trekking in Sapa started off better than the first, mostly because I got a good night’s sleep and it wasn’t raining. After breakfast at my hotel (which incidentally looks a LOT more elegant in these photos) with some other tourists who were also from the same hostel in Hanoi, I walked with my tour-buddy Lisa into town to meet our tour group. The downtown area was bustling with locals buying vegetables in the market, transporting livestock and hassling tourist to buy “hande-made” goods. Our tour guide later told us that she knows most of the goods are imported from China, ha.

I took some great photos of the local women; the kind that really make people jealous you were able to interact with such “authentic” and unique cultures. I know a lot of the women wear their traditional minority clothing for tourists now, but it still looks amazing and the Sapa Valley minority groups still seem to thrive in this area. Our group for the day consisted of multiple guides from the Mao minority village, and 5 females in their late 20’s. We were a chatty and energetic group from America, Canada, Switzerland, France and Germany…which made sliding down the muddy hills together all the more fun. Due to the rain our knee-high rubber boots became essential for the hike, and once I stepped in a mud pit so deep that the tall boots saved me by just an inch. While the minority women practically skipped down the muddy hillside, us foreigners labored through the mud-drenched paths, often taking a hand for balance.

Despite the fog, the rivers alongside the muddy trails were a stunning aqua-marine color and the bamboo was thick and impressive. We came across quaint village homes that were stunningly set between miles of terraced rice fields, and somewhat larger villages that were bustling with activity. There were children whipping around on bikes too-large for their bodies, 7 year-olds leading heards of oxen, families busily preparing meals for Tet, pigs and other animals tending to their young, and of course, the minority women hawking their wares. One of the photos below depicts two boys cleaning a pig in the river in preparation for their feast. Also, the photo of two young kids on the steps of a run-down, vacant-looking building, is actually a hospital in one of the towns.

I was a bit sad when the trek ended for the day, as I could’ve spent a few more hours wandering around those villages…every single thing I saw was picturesque. Little did I know that I probably should’ve just trekked back to my hotel instead of waiting for our “shuttle bus.” We waited for two hours to get picked up due to some miscommunication and the lack of employees during Tet. Then, when a beat-up, rusty, old pick-up truck finally jammed us all in, it broke down 20 minutes later. The driver spent a good half an hour getting the thing running again, while my ever-positive group assured our cute tour guide that we didn’t mind.

After tipping our tour guide $5 USD (which nearly doubled her days pay) Lisa and I headed back to the train station. We ate some Vietnamese egg rolls before hopping back on the night train, and this time I slept pretty hard. I arrived back at Hanoi around 5am, checked my email for a bit at the Rendezvous Hostel, and headed back to the airport for a flight to DaNang!

The train ride to Sapa was nine hours, but I didn’t sleep much. I was excited about visiting the area and worried that someone would steal my things. I was in a cabin with three other French passengers who first spoke, and then snored very loudly…so I arrived to Sapa in a daze. Upon arrival, transportation again turned in to a interesting experience. My hotel wasn’t there with a sign, so I wandered around for a while asking buses if they went to the Sapa Eden Hotel, and eventually noticed that my signed woman had arrived. I hopped in a shuttle bus, only to sit for another hour while we waited for the NEXT train to arrive and took on some additional cash paying customers who didn’t have a reservation, hm.

I entered my freezing cold Sapa Valley hotel around 7am and headed immediately to my room for a nap. There wasn’t any heat, even in the 4th nicest hotel in Sapa, so I blasted the heat fan, turned on the electric blanket and slept in everything I brought. I woke up, had a nice breakfast, and headed out into the rain for my first trek. The group consisted of a young French-Canadian couple, an Australian architect, and another Canadian girl who was teaching English in South Korea and also booked the tour from my hostel. Our tour guide was the incredibly lively Miao (or something similar) who was from an indigenous village a few miles outside of Sapa. She was only 17 and spoke very good English, which she had astoundingly learned from tourists on her treks! We first visited CatCat village, which was a small (and currently rainy) mountainside village. Similar to the buttery yellow buildings I saw in Hanoi, each village had a large structure made of this same color, which Miao told me housed the local school. And look, a Chinese tourist posed to make me feel at home.

After about half an hour the skies cleared up and I took some amazing photos of the landscape and village animals and people. Check out the photo where a water buffalo is in the middle of our path! I have to say, that baby pig trying to drink out of the same bucket as a water buffalo was quite a site. What seemingly gentle giants! I also noticed how awesome even the scraggliest of Vietnamese dogs looked. They resemble different types of Shiba Inus, and seem like the perfect combination of strength and size, because they are mostly under 40 lbs. and can definitely run!

The hike was a short one, and we stopped around lunchtime to have a Vietnamese lunch back at the hotel. Afterwards, Lisa (the Canadian English teacher) and I decided to check out the town of Sapa. It actually felt and looked similar to a Colorado ski town, complete with stores selling North Face jackets, hiking boots and other gear for the inappropriately dressed. As I saw all over Vietnam, there were also lots of French coffee shops and cafes. We first took some coffee (hot chocolate for me) at one shop, and then walked up the street to have some previously recommended cinnamon apple tea from a restaurant called Gecko. Along the way we were harassed by surprisingly good English speaking minority women, who actually waited outside the shops asking, “You buy? You buy from me? OK, maybe later?” Their outfits were awesome, but I had already bought a scarf in the village, so they had to settle for a photo and our change from the hot drinks.

After spending almost a year to date traveling exclusively around China, I took a leap of faith into another Asian country: Vietnam! David’s passport was with the Chinese government getting a new visa, so he couldn’t leave the country. To be honest, I decided on Vietnam mostly because of the reasonable airfare and overall prices in this country during the Chinese New Year. 2/3 of China’s population migrates from big city to their hometowns during the 2-week long Spring Festival in early February, so prices double and triple for transportation and accommodation during this period. I had also heard many friends extol the exciting cities and beautiful beaches found in Vietnam, so I planned a very last-minute trip that went as follows:

Day 1: Arrived at Rendezvous Hostel in Hanoi after midnight, day Tour of Hanoi, sleeper bus to Sapa Valley
Day 2-3: Sapa Valley Trekking, sleeper bus back to Hanoi airport, flight to Hoi An
Day 4-5: Hoi An Beach Town in Central Vietnam
Day 6: Motorbike Ride from Hoi An to Hue, night in Hue
Day 7: Early flight back to Hanoi, Spa and Relaxation Day
Day 8-9: Halong Bay
Day 10: Early flight back to Beijing

As is typical traveling around Asia, my trip started off with a transportation bang! I was seated on the plan next to two rowdy Russians, who were constantly reprimanded by the flight attendant for not putting on their seat belt, failing to turn up their tray table, walking around during turbulence, etc. They asked for three different drinks each time we were served, and made a fuss about putting their bags through the security check! They also thought I was Russian at first, and were slightly offended when I didn’t respond…I had no idea they were talking to me! Anyway, I got a kick out of them and the group of three Chinese families whose kids studied English in their hometown of Guangzhou and spoke remarkably well. By the end of the flight I exchanged information with the Russians and had the kids on my lap.

I had some apprehensions about traveling alone for the first time in a country where I didn’t speak the language (I have traveled alone previously in Spain, but I speak Spanish and am a little more used to European culture), so I decided to play it safe and book a taxi from the airport to my hostel. After getting my on-the-spot Vietnamese visa, I met my driver easily and talked with a nice German girl in the cab. Although I booked a bed in a 6-bed dorm at the hostel, I only had to share with one other person, who turned out to be a really nice Italian guy and we chatted in the dark for about a hour before falling asleep. It was pretty bizarre, since I saw his face for the first time the next morning!

After a free breakfast from the $7 a night hostel, I joined a bus tour of the city. Although David is opposed to tours like this and prefers to discover a city via map only, I thought it was a great deal. My group included a group of young Israeli girls who had just finished their mandatory army time, an IT guy from Austria and another American turned Beijinger who actually wrote the critically acclaimed book The 8th Promise! We saw all the hotspots without getting lost, which included the Ngoc Son Temple, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and Residence, The One Pillar Pagoda, Hall of Literature, Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, Lake of the Restored Sword, and A Ceramic Factory on the outskirts of town. I’m a sucker for the lotus flower, so I really loved the One Pillar Pagoda and its resemblance to a lotus. Ho Chi Minh’s complex with its French-inspired canary yellow buildings were really stunning, and it was neat to see the actual cars he used to drive around and his simple mountain house on stilts. It was very clear from spending just one day in Hanoi how beloved Ho Chi Minh is by the Vietnamese people for his dynamism and ability to be a man of the people.

I also got to try my first taste of authentic Vietnamese, which was nice! I like the staples of Vietnamese cuisine, which include pho noodle soup, spring rolls and chicken dishes. They use much better cuts of meat for the chicken dishes than the Chinese, and I really liked some of the curry and lemongrass sauces.

After resting a bit back at the hostel, I packed up my things and headed north for my first overnight train ride into Sapa Valley. I turned 26 on the overnight train, and felt pretty proud of myself for making the journey.

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