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.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Day 3: Forgotten but not lost (Sunday, June 29)

I got up early today and packed up, excited to go to Halong Bay. I was to be picked up some time between 8:15 and 8:30. As 8:25 arrived and passed, I began to get nervous. I don't know why because I've lived so many years in countries that have a flexible perspective on time. But still I worry. I worried more at 8:35 and finally couldn't stand it any more by 8:38. A guy at the hostel called for me to see where my ride was and discovered that I'd been forgotten. The bus was on the way to Halong Bay without me. After several phone calls back and forth trying to get them to come back for me, a woman showed up. She apologized for forgetting me and said that they couldn't come back and still get there in time to get on the boat. So instead she got out her wallet and gave me all my money back. Annoyed, but greatly mollified by getting the money with no fussing, I went back inside, booked a tour to Sapa leaving that night and went and got Elodie.

Elodie is a girl I'd met the night before. She figures prominently in my Facebook pictures, but last night we'd just talked for hours and then gone out for really cheap street food (deep fried turnovers with herbs and dipping sauce) and an expensive dessert (a mediocre apple tart). I went into the room this morning and told her to get up so we could go to the mausoleum. Well, Elodie cannot be hurried. So after a while, we rented bicycles and ventured off into the crazy Hanoi traffic. Yes, we got lost. No, we didn't get run over, and oh how cool I felt as I merged into that melee!

We ended up at the Temple of Literature, in which we both waited for the other and were bored; the Fine Arts Museum, in which they have done very interesting things with lacquer; and at the One Pillar Pagoda, which figure prominently despite its small size in many Hanoi post cards. We ate pho on the street sitting on tiny plastic stools. The mausoleum was hours closed by the time we got there, so we went to a lovely cafe under shady trees with fans blowing. We talked and drank coffee with ice and condensed milk and practiced looking lovely. It was a great day that more than made up for being left behind.
This evening I'm about to climb aboard the night train to Sapa.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Day 2 Part 2: Not exactly Karagoz, but...

Ok, if you've lived in Turkey, you've probably watched Hacivat and Karagoz - traditional shadow puppet plays. I figured that the Vietnamese water puppets would be much the same. I expected screechy music and lots of dialogue that that I couldn't understand. I've watched Karagoz for hours at school - never understanding, but eventually getting to the zen place that I enjoyed it quite a bit.

With that in mind, I went to the water puppets. The water puppets are traditionally Vietnamese and were invented by farmers in rice paddies. The puppeteers are behind a screen and work wading in water to push the puppets around and make them dance and move. The puppet works are under water so that they aren't seen. To the side is a traditional orchestra with singers who talk with the puppets as well as sing.

There were water buffalo, wives hitting husbands, dragons, fishermen and fish-stealing varmits. I guess it was sort of what I expected because it was amusing, though I didn't know what was going on. But it was traditional and it made me think of Turkey, so I did it.

Also on my list of things to do is to go to Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. I want to see if it's like Ataturk's since "Uncle Ho's" picture is everywhere just like Ataturk's (even in the stairway of the hostel.)

Day 2: Wandering in Hanoi (Saturday, July 28)

Today, I had a plan. I wanted to get tickets to the water puppet theatre, do a walking tour of the Old Quarter of Hanoi, eat some good food and arrange to go on a tour of Halong Bay tomorrow. I'm sure many of you wouldn't need definite goals for your sight-seeing, but I was strangely nervous about traveling alone and needed focus.

This morning I experienced the most hair-raising adventure of my whole trip: I had to cross the street for the first time. I'd read about the streets of Hanoi and I'd been given good advice about it (thanks, Catherine.) But reading about it wasn't like doing it for the first time.

I'll have to describe it because I never was able to get a photo that really illustrated what is was like to see an approximately 4 lane road full of motor scooters, buses, cars and bicycles driving straight at you. They just kept coming and coming and the story is, you're supposed to just step out and walk at a steady pace across the road and let everyone go around you. I believed it would work, but belief doesn't make it easy to step out into the road. But I psyched myself up and stepped out. It was quite thrilling actually to cross in that chaos and live.The Old Quarter is so great. I loved the architecture of course, but what was really exciting was all the life on the sidewalks. Women were peddling all kinds of food from place to place like pineapples, fish, shrimp, herbs, lychee, everything. The sidewalks were also full of restaurants, bicycles, parked scooters, shops, people washing their hair and clothes and rarely little boys peeing. There was so much to look at and there was so much energy. I totally fell in love with it.
I walked for hours despite the three or four men offering a ride on a scooter on every corner and the cyclo (pedaled rickshaws) drivers offering rides in the middle of the block. I got turned around a lot, bought a photocopied version of Catch 22, ate a lovely mid-morning snack, arranged to go to Halong Bay tomorrow, ate some weird deep-fried, stuffed tofu, and still had time to hang out and rest before going to the water puppet theatre at 4.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Day 1: Barely escaped to Vietnam (Friday June 27)

Between the drama that is my life and my own stupidity, it was a wonder that I made it to Vietnam at all. I know lots of people who have had great times traveling in Vietnam, including several of you reading this, and they told such great stories of the fun stuff they did, but not one of them mentioned that I'd need to get a visa. It wouldn't have hurt to tell some visa story! And no, it wasn't patently obvious that I'd need one to go to a Communist country! Since this was the first trip I'd planned and booked for myself in years and years, I didn't even think to check. It wasn't until Tuesday that I realized one was required and that I couldn't just get one at the airport! I completely panicked, but then called the consulate. They said that I could get one the next day. So I could apply on Wednesday, pick it up on Thursday and fly on Friday. But on Wednesday, a typhoon hit and shut down the town. Luckily the consulate was very obliging and on Thursday got me my visa the same day.

I did remember from backpacking around Europe that arriving in a new place and having to wander the streets finding a place to sleep was absolutely the worst. So as I headed off to Vietnam, I decided to make it easy on myself. I booked a couple of nights at a backpackers hostel and arranged for an airport pick-up. It cost me a little extra money, but I was so glad to arrive and just look for my name.

Impressions from the airport:
Traditional hats everywhere
Constant honking
Water buffalo and rice paddies
Crazy power lines

I arrived at the hostel, met lots of people at the upstairs bar, drank beer and relaxed knowing I had almost two weeks to have fun and explore at my own pace. I can't wait to wander Hanoi tomorrow!