Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Day 13: Going home (Wednesday, July 9)

This is the last picture I took in Vietnam, on my way to the airport. Notice the little metal seat bolted on for the darling. I'm surprised he doesn't have a helmet because the helmet law was recently introduced into Vietnam and just about everyone wears one. I love the variety of styles and colours in the helmet shops. You can get one for any occasion and colour coordinate to your outfit. Some of the women wear gloves up to their elbows to avoid tanning, but this lady just had the short ones on, unfortunately.

I'm really sorry my trip is over. I won't mind getting back to sleeping in a room with fewer people, though. Until last night, I'd slept like a dream in the hostel, but last night was a classic dorm nightmare. At about 2:30 three girls came in. They were clearly trying to be quiet, but were too wobbly to quite get it. After 20 minutes of digging around in their bags and whispering, they settled down to eat chips! Then at 5:30 two more girls came home, so drunk that they fell through the bedroom door, slamming it wide open and scaring me half to death. But I'm sure I tried to be quiet when I got up at 7 so as not to disturb them.

I loved meeting people and doing things at my own speed. I don't get that in my real life of course, but I guess that's why it's called a holiday.

Next trip to Vietnam, I want to go to Hoi An and get clothes tailor made. I'll let you know what that's like if I get to do it. I'll leave you with a picture of the best iced coffee I had in Vietnam. The white at the bottom is a dollop of sweetened, condensed milk. In fact, once I post this, I'm going to go and make me some. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Day 12: Il pleure dans ma coeur, comme il pleut sur la ville (Tuesday, July 8)

It was a sad and rainy morning, my last full day in Hanoi. Melancholy dripped from the leaves into the lake. The lake swallowed the tears and still, reflected the sky.But the streets are so full of life that curiosity pulled me from my mood.I ended up taking a taxi to the Ethnographic Museum. It was a super museum because
a) there were lots of videos showing people making things like hats and baskets;
b) there were stools to sit on to watch the videos in comfort;
c) there were traditional houses outside that you could climb up into;
d) there was tea for sale made on whatever kind of traditional hearth matched the house;
e) there was a great museum shop selling handicrafts at good prices and claiming to be sending the money to the artisans;
f) there was a terrific restaurant that was a non-profit organization training disadvantaged kids to work in hospitality.

If you make it there, order the mango salad with dried beef - I've never tasted anything so good.

The museum is about 10 km from the hostel. I hate taking taxis - I'm always sure they're ripping me off, so I was intending to take a city bus back to the right area of town. But when I left the museum, the motorscooter guys started trying to get me to ride with them. I demurred because of the price, but when I got that low enough, I told them I wasn't sure because it was too dangerous. They told me over and over with few words and many gestures that they'd drive very slowly and safely. Since I couldn't possibly leave Hanoi without a motor scooter ride, and it was my last day, and since everyone gets around town that way, I took the plunge. He was a good driver, but it was still crazy - fun and scary and I arrived at destination with grit covering all bare skin.

I had originally booked a tour to the Perfume Pagoda for today. It sounded like a great time, being rowed up a river, then climbing up to beautiful temples in the mist. But when I woke up, I realized I didn't want to be toured around for my last day in Hanoi. And so I did what no backpacker kid would have the luxury to do - I just didn't go. I wasted $25 US, and it was worth it to make my last day this much fun.

Day 11: The streets of Hanoi (Monday, July 7)

I hate this stage of a holiday, where I know it's almost over and want to hold on and pack more and more experiences in. I want the fun to end with a bang, not a whimper. So I spent the day walking all over Hanoi's Old Quarter trying to soak it all in.

My favourite things anywhere are open markets, and the Hanoi ones are exceptionally alive. I hadn't been so delighted with a market since I bought a hanging turkey from a butcher in the big market in Ulus years ago.

There are eels and snakes, frogs and other strange meats. The best thing about this market is that you can buy your vegetables already chopped however you like them. The women sitting and selling are busy cutting carrots into flowers, julienning bamboo shoots, cleaning pineapples, whatever can be done to add value to their product. Plus there are already-made rolls and stuffed things to take home to be cooked there. I read that many households shop before each meal.

Of course, it's made easier by the women peddling their goods all over town.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Day 10: Slowly back to Hanoi (Sunday, July 6)

Not everyone was feeling chipper this morning. Our guide read his watch wrong and came to wake us up two hours before we actually had to leave the hotel. He was pretty lost in his hangover. The hotel the four of us got shuffled off to was so crummy that they didn't have breakfast, so we went out for a local breakfast. We chose "rice cakes" over the traditional pho. This is what our breakfast looked like.

After we ate, I spent 45 minutes sitting on the step of the hotel watching families come and go getting their breakfast at the restaurant next door. They were eating chicken pho - the ubiquitous N. Vietnamese breakfast. If you don't know, it's noodles with chicken broth, chicken, various fresh herbs and chili sauce added to taste. I never did have pho for breakfast unfortunately.This is how Derbhla felt this morning:

Elodie was by far the most enthusiastic (read loud) of the crowd from last night. I preferred to listen to music and look around.
This is the playlist I made that day:
Come on Home - Everything But the Girl
Coffee Stain - Sarah Harmer
Do It for Free - G. Love & Special Sauce
Going to California - Led Zeppelin
I Can Buy You - A Camp
I Envy the Wind - Lucinda Williams
Idiot Wind - Bob Dylan
If I had $1,000,000 - BNL
J'Ai Demande a la Lund - Indochine
Jesus, Etc. - Wilco
Maybe Sparrow - Neko Case
California Dreamin - Queen Latifah
Artbitch - C.S.S.
Too Late for Goodbyes - Julian Lennon
Stay up Late - Talking Heads
Son of a Preacher Man - Dusty Springfield
Gin & Juice - Phish
One Night in Bangkok - Murray Head
Joy - Lucinda Williams
Watching the River Flow - Bob Dylan

It wasn't a shabby view sitting on the front of the boat watching the world go by.

It was pretty most of the way back to Hanoi as well.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Day 9: Adventures galore (Saturday, July 5)

If you compare dates, you'll notice that I'm seriously lagging on finishing up my holiday postings. I have two days before I have to fly back to Hong Kong and my real life, so I will persevere. I will not allow this blog to become another box of photos that need to be put in an album. So, resolutions aside, back to the holiday.
After today I have greater respect for all the backpack kids who travel for six months or a year all over Asia. They party every night and sightsee every day, but I think partying at night is quite incompatible with great mornings and afternoons. And it's not just because I'm old - I've always thought so. But today I did it all anyway.

We woke up this morning to the most gorgeous views of Halong Bay. I posted a few of them in the last post and may cheat and stick some into my HK blog next school year when life seems especially dreary. It was great going along in the sunshine, completely unconcerned about timing or destination. I guess that's what I like best about tours. It's like being a bad kid on a field trip who ignores the teachers and just hangs out with her friends.We met up on another boat with a bunch of other people from our bus and spent the morning riding around Cat Ba island and being taken down a tidal river through mangrove swamps to a quiet cave. I spent most of the time hearing fascinating stories from Derbhla about her experiences volunteering with special needs kids in Belarus. We had a great lunch in a bamboo hut on stilts over the swamps and then were dropped off in the town to amuse ourselves until supper.

Scott, Elodie, Daniel and I decided to rent scooters to ride around the island. As we were walking down the street, a guy swooped over to see if we wanted to rent a bike. Scott negotiated price ($3 US each for 3 hours plus petrol) and the other guy motioned for three of his friends to come over so we'd have enough scooters. We handed over the money; they handed over helmets, and off we drove. We didn't give names, passports, driving licenses, name of hotel, nothing! I hadn't ridden a scooter since Martita taught me to ride hers in 1985 and it was a little weird shifting without using a clutch, but once we started off, it was glorious!

It reminded me of how when a bunch of us went to the Dominican Republic my senior year of high school, on an afternoon we had free from building, the teacher rented us a bunch of motorcycles. It sounds completely mad now, but he paired everyone up so there was a driver and a rider, usually a boy on the front and a girl on the back. He took the lead and made everyone stay behind him, but that was the extent of the safety precautions. Here we were, fifteen or so high school kids roaring around the back roads through sugar cane fields on motorcycles! We didn't have helmets or anything and we were all in shorts.
I had a helmet on today, though, but I was in shorts and a bit worried about it. I guess I am getting old. Cat Ba island is mainly a national park, so the cliffs and jungle was gorgeous. There were awesome vines for Tarzaning, but we just cruised around blissfully. That is, we were carefree until Elodie crashed and broke her scooter's kickstand off. It started to stress me out, but it was nice to realize that it really wasn't something I had to sort out. (In the end it cost her $6 US.)

After settling that transaction, we drank beer and coconut milk (not together) by the harbor as night came on, then changed for dinner. We ate, drank, danced and closed down the disco in town. I went to bed at around one and missed the drama of escorting some falling down Irish friends all over town looking for their hotel. I guess I am old - always going to bed before the excitement starts. (There are pictures of some of the wild times on Facebook, but I'm just putting the picturesque here.)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Day 8: Off to Along Baie (Friday, July 4)

Actually I was off to Halong Bay, but Elodie says and spells it Along Baie and she figures prominently in this trip. I was delighted yesterday afternoon to discover that Elodie was not only still in Hanoi, but also going to Halong Bay on the same tour I was. From the first when we got on the mini bus, she made it more interesting. First she made everyone go around and introduce themselves. We hit it off with Scott and Daniel, two Canadian brothers who were sitting behind us on the bus. So the three hours on the way to Halong City were occupied with telling jokes. I didn't laugh at any of them as much as I laughed at my "three pieces of string" joke, but anyone who's heard me tell it knows that.

This trip was for three days and two nights. The first night we were to spend out on a boat in the bay and the second in a hotel on Cat Ba island. It was loads of fun and very picturesque. I'm going to let the pictures tell most of the story.

Here is Elodie telling her joke to a Spanish couple and a Korean couple who were also on the boat with us. Because the tour was overbooked, Elodie, Daniel, Scott, Rich and I were shuffled off to a smaller boat. On it there were us, a Swiss couple, a Spanish couple and the two Koreans. Elodie's joke was delivered in English with a heavy French accent with uncertain syntax and lots of pantomime. It goes like this: "How heavy is a polar bear? Enough to break the ice. Hi, I'm ..." And it is further complicated by her saying, "Hi, I'm Franz" in an Arnold accent at the end since that's who she heard it from first. Needless to say, the Koreans didn't get it. But luckily the woman of the Swiss couple spoke five languages, so she explained it to the Spaniards.Here is the harbor with all the tour boats and a bit of the scenery as we took off.

Here's part of the cave we explored before we went kayaking.

Here's where the boat anchored for the night after the kayaking. I didn't dive off the top, of course, but I did dive off the railing, which was brave for me.

Here we are mid-way through our evening of pretty mellow drinking games. We were playing with everyone except the Korean couple. The rules were explained in English, then in French, then translated into Spanish, so we got along just fine. We persuaded everyone to play to celebrate Patrick's 50th birthday which was coming in a couple of days. It turned out that both the Swiss and Spanish women were second grade teachers. It was quite a jolly time.

The other boats rocked their lights gently in the distance.
The stars twinkled like warm kisses on a sleeping cheek.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Day 7: Lining up for Ataturk (Thursday, July 3)

Arriving in Hanoi on an overnight train at 4:30 a.m., after a long uncomfortable night in which the air con pumped cold and old cigarette smoke into the compartment all night, makes for a sleepy day. I wandered out of the station and was happy to have a place to go to rest until the city woke up. Although, as we drew into town, I had seen a huge market off to the side of the railroad tracks that was lighted and full before 4, bustling in the pre-dawn, but I had no idea where that was. I went to the hostel and sat and dozed in the bar until breakfast time. Even there I wasn't alone because the place had been full last night and two guys and a girl had spent the night on the wooden benches. It made me feel that my night hadn't been so bad.

My goal for this morning was to see Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. I think I really wanted to go through because I'd gone to Anitkabir so many times. (Anitkabir is Ataturk's mausoleum in Ankara, Turkey. It has great grounds even though you're not allowed to even bring a book in since you might end up sitting and thinking of something other than Ataturk. The guards wouldn't even let my girl bring her doll in when she was 3 or 4. But there are lot of fascinating things in the museum attached to Anitkabir like Ataturk's rowing machine, some of his cars, one of his favourite dogs, carefully preserved and my favourite: a plaque from Haile Selassie. )

On the museum grounds they had Ho Chi Minh's cars, his place setting in the dining room, his office with pictures of Marx and Lenin above his desk, and also the stilt house he is supposed to have spent some time in in contemplation every day. I didn't go into the Presidential Museum, so I didn't see the gifts from dignitaries, but I'd like to imagine there was a big gaudy plaque from Haile Selassie there, too.

But the most incredible thing about Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum by far was the line. The mausoleum is only open from 8 - 10:30 or so several days a week and every day there is a line stretching for over half a kilometre! It's not the length of the line that is most impressive, though; it's the orderliness. I'd bet a million dollars that no where else in Asia is there a line like this. The people walk quietly one by one until the guards tell everyone to line up two by two at which point there is suddenly two distinct and straight lines. This goes through one visual check (to make sure you don't have too big of a bag and that you have enough skin covered) and two security checks (to make sure you don't have any electronics with you.) No one cuts in front of anyone else; no one talks; children are kept orderly. Apparently you're not allowed to have your hands in your pockets inside the mausoleum and you're not allowed to keep your hat on, either.

The line wanders along shaded sidewalks, moving pretty quickly since there's no bunching up or dawdling allowed. Once inside the air con hits you hard. You walk up two flights of steps and go around a corner to the left, and there Ho Chi Minh is under red lights. The walkway is slightly raised and has pretty high railings. There is a sunken area around the coffin where four soldiers stand. He's slightly propped up in a glass-sided coffin with his hands laid straight on a satin blanket. You can't stop and look because the guards keep the line moving. It was very interesting to see. The guide book says that his body is sent back to Russia three months out of the year for maintenance. If I get to go back to Hanoi, I'm definitely going to go there again - it's quite an experience.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Day 6: Shopping in Sapa (Wednesday, July 2)

I haven't mentioned one of the real pleasures of Vietnam: the coffee. Here's a picture of a Vietnamese coffee maker. The grounds are held in the upper cup between two filters. You pour a little hot water on them to wet them and then pour boiling water enough for your cup of coffee. But what makes it special is that in the cup, you've already put a dollop of sweetened condensed milk. It makes a cup as sweet and as bitter as life.

Most of this day I wandered and shopped for the lovely embroideried pieces that the women make in the villages. I don't have good pictures of the shopping or the displays, mainly because it was all I could do was to do the shopping. A crowd of women pulling on my arms, showing me goods, wheedling, "Buy from me. Buy from me," is very overwhelming. I got what I wanted, and only what I wanted, but it took some concentration and I didn't have a hand free for a camera. The hardest people to buy from were the women who hung out on the streets to accost any tourists walking by. But even in the markets where they had individual stalls, the women were really demanding and would come and pull on my arm. I wouldn't say it was intimidating, more just overwhelming. Twice such a crowd had gathered around me that I had to duck into an internet cafe or into a regular cafe to get away.
By mid-afternoon I'd spent all the money I'd planned to and was tired of the work of bargaining. So I took a walk down to Cat Cat village. It's about 3K down into the valley. There's a set stone path all the way down to cut erosion and keep the tourists out of the rice paddies. There are also men offering motor scooter rides back up all along the way. The kids were cute but horribly reckless around there. People were drying their indigo-dyed hemp cloth on railings all over.

The stuff that they can make is just gorgeous, as is the scenery. The people are terribly poor, though during this high season, they do make some money from tourists. I don't think I've ever been to a place that people still wear traditional clothing, and I wonder how long it will last. Usually I don't buy enough of the beautifully-made things I see on my travels. But this night backpack was full and I had three extra shopping bags as I went to the train station.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Day 5: The trek back to Sapa (Tuesday, July 1)

Like many non-Asian women, I've looked enviously at the little willowy Vietnamese girls, wishing to have their slender frames and delicate figures. I've always been able to comfort myself, though, with the thought that I may be bigger, but at least I'm stronger. Well, no more.

After the pouring rain of the night, we were told that we couldn't go and swim in the waterfall that we were going to this morning. Instead we just walked to look at it. It was drizzly and muddy, but not cold and very beautiful. On the way, we kept encountering women going the other direction carrying big loads of wood on their backs. I didn't know if it was wood-cutting season or what, until we reached the river. The rain had been so hard that it had filled the whole channel and washed over the banks from high in the mountains all the way down. Above this village, the forests are part of a reserve and the villagers aren't allowed to go into the hills to cut wood for heating or cooking. But with the flooding water, loads of dead fall had been washed into the valleys and everyone was taking advantage of this windfall (or should I say, waterfall).

We came upon one woman standing near her basket load of wood and our guide picked it up for a minute. I wanted to know how heavy it was, too and lifted it. Now, I don't know exactly how heavy it was, but I've heaved lots of 60+ lbs suitcases to judge if they were light enough to go on the airplane. That load was over 70 lbs for sure! And that delicate looking thing was going to carry it a considerable distance home. I was shocked by the weight, actually, because I've always carried dry wood when I've had to haul it. But this stuff was green and soaked. And now I have nothing to make myself feel less like an oaf next to those girls.

It was a much harder hike up from the village back to Sapa than the other way. The track, already slick from clay-like soil and water buffalo poop, was gooey and doubly slick. I even dropped my white hat in the mud of all indignities! A couple of the girls who were on the tour with us decided to get a motorscooter ride back up to the main road. I was glad that the other girls wanted to walk because I didn't trust some boy to ride me up the muddy road. It turned out I had reason to worry because one of the bikes spun out with Megan on the back. Luckily she just lost a patch of skin off her foot.

By the time we got back to Sapa I was soaked and cold. Yes, it is possible to be cold in Vietnam in the summer, but it isn't very common. I found a hotel while the other girls showered at the tour office and got ready to take the night train back to Hanoi. I'd planned to stay an extra day to do some shopping and explore a little on my own. But it was kind of lonely after the days of being with people, so Megan and I had some pho in the market before she took off. It was pretty tasty and entertaining because the woman had a big TV with a Chinese soap opera playing. The show was in Chinese with Vietnamese dubbed over the top of the Chinese dialogue, and set in Samurai-time Japan. Megan and I made great dialogue for it in English. Later I took myself out for a nice meal in a cozy restaurant to commemorate July 1st.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Day 4: Sapa Trekking (Monday, June 30)

The night train to Sapa was very Agatha Christie. It's high season for tourists in Sapa in Northeast Vietnam because in the winter it gets really cold there. It sometimes snows and the temperature hovers around freezing for a few months. Even in summer, it was only around 20 C at night.

We arrived early in Sapa and explored the town a little before starting our two day trek. Wherever we walked, there were women, Black Hmong women, who were very aggressively trying to sell us their handiwork. It was not that hard to get through them with a purposeful walk and no eye contact, but once you looked at their stuff, it was very difficult to get away.

I was really worried that I was going to hate the trekking because as we were driven to where we were to start hiking, all I could see was tourists walking down the road with gaggles of women all around trying to sell them things. We did have an entourage for the first half day of our hiking, but they seemed to leave me alone and only were selling to us at rest stops. I loved their outfits and really wanted to get one. The clothes are made from hemp that is hand-spun and then woven and dyed with indigo. It was really cool stuff!

Six of us hiked all day with a guide through just incredible scenery. It was sunny and hot and gorgeous, but the air was thick enough with moisture that the photos don't do it justice.

In the evening, we came to a stilt house where we were going to spend the night. We dropped off our stuff and went to a hot springs (warmish) that was developed into cement pools. We sat over-looking a powerful river and terraced rice fields that were turning emerald in the sunset. It was glorious to wash the heat and dirt of the day off.
We returned to a great dinner that was cooked in a very basic kitchen. The upstairs of the house was made of split bamboo. There were lots of sleeping mats and pillows with good mosquito netting, but it was so incredibly hot. I've never laid in bed and have sweat pour off me like that! It wasn't until 3 or so when an incredible thunder/rain storm hit that the heat broke. It poured for hours and was wonderful to sleep to.