Vietnam - North
Europe - Germany, Belgium, and France
Nepal - Around Manaslu
Australia - Driving around Southern Australia
Australia - Olympics
Australia - Great Barrier Reef
Thailand - Bangkok
Vietnam - Central and South
Vietnam - North
Egypt - Along the Nile
Egypt - Touring and diving
Israel and Jordan
Brief return to the USA
Ecuador - Quito and surroundings
Ecuador - Galapagos Islands
Ecuador - Quito and the jungle
Peru - Machu Picchu and Lima
Peru - Cusco and the Sacred Valley
Zimbabwe and South Africa - Vic Falls and Blyde River Canyon
South Africa - Motorcycle trip
Argentina - Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls
Argentina - Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes
Chile - Exploring the Lake Region
Chile - Pucon and the Bio Bio
Argentina - El Calafate and El Chalten
Chile - Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine
Argentina - Rio Gallegos and Ushuaia
Chile - Santiago and Punta Arenas
Guatemala and Honduras - Rio Dulce and Copan
Guatemala - Coban and Spanish school
Guatemala - Tikal and Spanish school
Guatemala - Antigua and Spanish school
On the omelet line at breakfast, we chatted with an American. It turns out that he works in computer systems for the American Embassy in Bangkok and knows many SE Asian cities. He gave us some advice about bars and restaurants before inquiring why we voluntarily traveled to Laos, which caused a good laugh.
After breakfast we headed out and stopped at the Scandinavian bakery to pick up lunch rather than depend on plane food. Then we headed to the internet cafe one last time. We had been warned that emails had not gone out of Vietnam for a week, so we sent a few messages in case we had to be incommunicado.
Soun-Thon met us at the hotel and ferried us to the airport. Fortunately international flights have the terminal opened this year, which is a great improvement over the old. We made ourselves comfortable at a table in the bar to read and journal.
Quite different from Laos Aviation, Vietnam Airlines took off early. We had a quick, pleasant flight to Hanoi. On the shuttle bus in Hanoi an American couple offered us a paperback they just finished, so we swapped with them, glad for the new book.
In the immigration terminal we headed directly to the Visas on Arrival window. Shortly a man walked up holding a sign with our names - the Vietnamese rep of Wild Card Adventures had talked his way into immigration to help us! Fortunately it was an easy process. We paid the $50 and went through immigration quickly.
Hien, our guide for the day, and our driver met us in baggage claim. The drive into Hanoi was rather long, but we chatted with Hien and Ngoc (the other rep) so the time passed quickly. They took us by an ATM where we got a mere 2 million dong ($140).
We relaxed in the hotel for a few hours before Hien stopped by to take us on a walking tour of the Old Quarter. It was quite hot and humid! However, we enjoyed walking along the crowded streets lined with vendors. The traffic in Hanoi is the craziest that we have seen anywhere in the world. Fortunately we were warned by many people.
Hien mentioned that we were significantly calmer than other just-arrived tourists, especially when crossing the street. This requires nerves of steel actually. The appropriate method is to walk into traffic (mostly motorcycles, scooters, cyclos and bicycles) and continue directly across the street. The important rule is not to make eye contact with a driver. If you do, then he assumes that you will avoid him, but if you do not then he will avoid you. This results in a very blind crossing, but seems to work quite well.
Rather than return to the hotel, we entered a recommended shop, Khai silk. We arranged for them to make a handsome silk kimono for Tom. The street was lined with other silk shops, and we stopped in a few until Louisa found a pants and top outfit which we ordered.
On the way to dinner we walked along the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake. A teenage boy selling postcards approached. We declined, but he persisted. We declined again and he persisted, stepping in front of Louisa and placing his hands on her arm which was across the front of her body. She responded by saying 'No Thank You' for the third time while moving her arm, and the teenager, away from her. At this he yelled 'Fuck You!' quite loudly at her. Tom replied with an equivalent comment as we continued to walk away.
This was definitely the first time that a street vendor yelled profanities at us. Next we arrived at a restaurant where we were told that they were full for the evening even though many tables were empty. As we looked at the map to chose another destination we noticed that the restaurant turned away most young foreigners. We headed across the street for Italian food, because we were hungry and it was near.
During dinner we watched Hanoi life outside. Vietnamese filled the sidewalks cooking and talking. A girl stepped off the curb, pulled down her shorts, squatted and peed right there!
After dinner we returned to the hotel for much needed showers before bed.
We awoke to bright sunshine at 6am, so we decided to go for a walk. This meant waking up the night desk clerk, who was asleep on a cot in the lobby, and having him open the metal gate so we could go out. Once outside, the Old Quarter was much quieter than it had been at 10pm the night before.
The heat and humidity were not any better at this hour - we started sweating immediately. We explored down a few streets, then cut over towards the Hoan Kiem lake. On the way, we bought a notebook, for recording brainstorms.
Around the lake we saw mostly old people doing exercises, swinging their arms and legs. We didn't see any organized tai chi, but we did see several people playing badminton. There were a few runners, and even a woman doing step aerobics on the curb.
On the way back we looked for coffee on the street with many cafes, but we didn't see many people or any espresso machines, so we continued walking. Back at the hotel, they were a bit more awake, so we decided to eat before showering.
In the hotel restaurant, we got no service for about 10 minutes, so Tom went up to shower. Louisa found the manager, and by the time Tom returned, had managed to get orange juice. After another interminable wait, we got some eggs and a bit of toast. Not a satisfying experience, in more ways than one. We do not recommend the Kim Thanh Hotel for other reasons, as well - the bathroom was dirty, and the room dingy in general.
We packed a week's worth of gear into our duffel, and closed up the other bags to leave in Hanoi. Long, our guide, was waiting for us in the lobby, so we headed out around 8am. After a quick stop at the office to drop our bags, we drove through Hanoi on our way north.
The driving in Vietnam is crazier than almost anywhere we've been, primarily because of the number of scooters. Everywhere seems to be a passing lane, and if you're not actively honking your horn, you're flashing your lights. We never saw any accidents, though, which we think is a miracle.
The drive was very long and boring - once you've seen a few rice paddies, you've seen 'em all. However, we did comment that everyone, man, woman and child, wore the traditional conical hat whether riding a scooter, a water buffalo or working in the rice paddy.
We stopped for gas and lunch at a small town, and had some pretty good fish soup and fried chicken. In the afternoon, we climbed winding roads at a dizzying pace, making both of us carsick, so we couldn't do anything except groan and stare out the window.
Finally, around 4:30, we arrived in Bac Ha, and checked in to Sao Mai Hotel. The building seems quite new, and the rooms not bad, although they are spartan and don't have AC. After resting a bit, we were ready for dinner.
Long took us on a walking tour of town, which took all of 15 minutes. Everyone seemed quite friendly, and stared openly at our height and obvious westernness. We noticed fewer conical hats than in Hanoi or the countryside, and saw the first traditional pajamas worn by many of the women and children. After saying "Hello" to several children, Long took us to Cong Phu restaurant for dinner. We had excellent spring rolls, BBQ pork, and rice noodles, and chatted with Long.
Our driver, Huong, joined us, and insisted that Tom do a shot of corn vodka with him. Later in the meal we found out that he is engaged to be married, so we talked about weddings and such, with Long doing a great job interpreting. We really enjoyed the meal, and learned a lot about Vietnamese culture from both our guide and our driver.
After dinner we strolled back to the hotel in the moonlight, since the power was out in the town. We had a few longan berries for dessert, and then went up to our room. In the dark, we journaled and read by flashlight, with the doors open to catch the breeze. Soon, the early morning caught up with us, and we went to bed.
After a fitful sleep in the heat and humidity, we had a meagre breakfast at the hotel. Then Long pointed to our transport - a late 60's model Russian army jeep seemingly left over from the war. Long, our car driver Huong, the jeep driver and his helper, and we all piled in and left about 8:00am for the hour-long, 20 kilometer drive to the colorful market at Can Cau.
The road quickly went from bad to worse, and we jounced over ruts and through small streams. As we began climbing into the mountains, we smelled gasoline in the cabin, so the driver stopped to take a look. Of course, the road is one-lane, so this meant that the 2 jeeps following us also had to stop.
After the driver fiddled a bit underneath the hood, he declared everything OK and we climbed back inside the jeep.
Less than 10 minutes passed before a large clatter sounded after a bump. The driver stopped immediately, hopped out and started speaking loud Vietnamese. We jumped out, looked under the jeep and saw the drive shaft half on the ground. Not good. The bolts connecting it to the transmission had worked loose - Huong found one on the ground. After 5 minutes and no progress, we, along with the passengers of the two jeeps behind us, started walking to the market. Fortunately we were relatively close and over the mountain pass. Rice paddies filled the slopes of the mountain. Along the road we passed many Hmong children and adults carrying baskets of goods either to or from the market.
The Hmong girls and women wear incredibly colorful clothes from head to toe. They wrap their head in bright green and yellow, or red and blue plaid cloth and wear large silver decorative earrings. Their clothes consist of a long sleeve blouse made of at least three primary colors, a flounced skirt with many bands of different bright fabrics, and an apron of an intricate needlework design.
After about a half hour walk we came to the market. We ducked under the low awnings as we wove through the crowd, watching the women bargain for colorful yarn and clothing, and men buy hardware, tobacco and corn 'wine. The colors, sounds, and smells of a true local market are unmatched - there were no "tourist goods" and hardly any westerners. Many people openly stared, especially when they saw us ducking under awning ropes that didn't bother them at all. We knew when they talked about us, because the Hmong word for foreigners sounds like "funky" - originally a mispronounciation of "francais," the only foreigners they ever saw.
Louisa tried on a skirt, but it was too short and small. The women laughed in amazement at how small it was on her, and tried to find one large enough, but failed. We did find a few embroidered pillow cases that caught our eye and we added to our bag.
About this time we heard horns along the street for the first time, we ran over and saw our jeep driving on the road, followed by the other half dozen that had been forced to stop and wait.
We chatted with a French couple from our hotel, once we realized that we had Spanish in common, then wound our way out of the market, keeping a careful eye out for the ropes hanging at about throat level.
After a picture or two of the whole market from the hill above, we crossed our fingers and got back in the jeep. This time, we had some excitement fishtailing all over the road as he gunned it up a steep part. Later, we stalled out and couldn't start again (battery dead - must be an alternator problem). We watched in disbelief as the driver handed his assistant a crank, which the assistant proceeded to insert in the engine to crank start us. After a few tries (and a few bruises for him), the car started again, and we finally made it back to Bac Ha.
We ate lunch at the hotel, waiting quite a while to be served since the other jeeps had managed to pass us and all had just ordered. We then relaxed for a while, reconvening again at 3pm to walk up to a different Hmong village.
We were joined by a Swede named Magnus, who asked quite politely if he could go with us. We chatted with him on the way up, as we picked our way along the muddy trails. Children along the way asked us to take their photos, and for candy.
We followed the trail through rice fields and , getting quite muddy a few times, and after a while began climbing quite steeply. Fields of rice, corn and soy filled the slopes. Extensive terraces had been built to grow "wet" rice, which is much easier and more productive than the "dry" rice the hill tribes traditionally have grown.
Along the way Long chatted in Hmong with families who passed with their horses laden with loads of corn or with the kids working the fields. There were a few children getting rides on the backs of water buffalo which definitely seemed the way to go. Everyone seemed friendly, responding amiably with our attempts at Hmong and Vietnamese greetings. Rarely did they understand the latter. In fact, it seemed that they were more likely to know "hello", "thank you" and "good-bye" than the equivalent in Vietnamese.
Previously during our travels, we have seen the fields filling hillsides and figures working the fields, but always at a distance. Today we walked their paths, spoke with them, and learned much more about their way of life.
The humidity was overpowering, even though it wasn't particularly hot. Tom was completely soaked in sweat, and even Long had sweated through his shirt.
We walked along with a husband, wife, two toddler children and horse toward the top of the ridge where we saw our destination. The woman of the house was in her 'yard' (mud path) when we approached. She invited us into her house. She was busily feeding the fire in her stove on which she was brewing corn 'wine' (which tastes around 180 proof). Her tiny son, dressed only in a tattered sweater, was bashful of the strange looking big people that had just walked into his house. Eventually we won him over with an Altoid.
She chatted with Long continuously, offering hot tea and potent corn alcohol. We observed their house. It was a large room with a huge mud oven at one end and a small area sectioned off at the other for their bedroom. The loft was completely filled with corn and some other food. The entire eight person family lived in the room, including their 6 children.
She agreed to a picture and loved seeing it on the digital screen. She asked if she could have one, and Long had to try to explain to her why we could not give her one.
Finally, we said good-bye, and headed down. Near the bottom of the hill, we took another route across the , and met up with a boy we had seen earlier. Since we weren't quite sure the way, the boy agreed to guide us, but first he needed to divert water from the rice paddies to the for the house. We waited for a few minutes, then marveled as water coursed down a previously dry channel, dropped through a pipe, and turned the turbine. The boy, Ho, and several giggling girls then led us along more muddy paths to another small village, from which there was a narrow dirt road to Bac Ha.
The hotel never looked so inviting where we gulped down cold water and showered the thick layer of mud and sweat off our bodies. We were also ravenous, so we headed to dinner with Long and Magnus. Tonight Cong Phu had customers (foreigners) at every table. We snagged the last one and ordered a table full of food.
With our bellies full and our bodies tired we walked back to the hotel and turned in for the night.
We tried to sleep in this morning, but the people arriving for the market filled the air. After breakfast at the hotel we walked to the market with Long. Immediately Bac Ha seemed different. More traffic of motorbikes and Hmong women with baskets traveled along the dirt road in front of the hotel. At the intersection with town a line of horses were tethered waiting for their owners. The main street was full of jeeps, buses and other modes of transportation.
Sleepy Bac Ha was fully awake on this Sunday morning. Most motorbikes and baskets held cargo of live pigs, chickens, ducks, or . The pigs sounded particularly upset as indicated by their loud squeals. One area of the market was dedicated completely to livestock. People stood around with bamboo cages filled with animals for sale. The going price for chickens was between 17,000 to 20,000 dong per kilo ($1.20 to $1.40).
The market was not nearly as colorful nor provincial as the one at Cam Cau yesterday, but much larger. We saw more manufactured goods, as well as livestock. Hardly any of the goods were geared for tourists, although the vendors that sold tourist souvenirs were sure to shout hello as we passed.
Hmong extracted the car from the overflowing parking lot at the hotel. We wormed our way to the bar and paid our bill, glad to be leaving Bac Ha now that it had been overtaken by tourists. As we drove out of town on the main road, the quaint, quiet village that we discovered on Friday night was hidden.
We stopped for lunch in the border town of Lao Cai. The waitress hurried up the stairs to an unused third floor room. Their clientele usually consists of Vietnamese, and usually local officials at that. Long ordered food which took longer than usual. After he finished he mentioned that it was hard to find normal food to order, which had us a little concerned.
Soon the waitress brought a platter covered with shaved goat meat cooked in a sauce with sesame seeds. We used small squares of rice paper to make miniature burritos with slivers of star fruit and an herb. We were delightfully surprised to discover that goat meat tasted fine. Tom crunched away at the deep fried miniature fish complete with heads and beady eyes that arrived next. He encouraged Louisa to try them, but she refrained. On the way out we drank tea with two Vietnamese men who were lounging in the couch in the front room. The conversation was in Vietnamese, but they were quite interested in where we lived and who we were.
An hour later we arrived in Sapa. As we aproached the village, more people walked along the road. Their style of dress was striking. Both men and women wore a dark blue-blackish colored clothing with accents of eethnic stitching. Both men and woman wore long sleeve blouses with squares of stitching over there shoulders in back. The woman wore skirts to just below the knee and thick socks, while the men wore knickers and thick socks. We enjoyed seeing a different sect of the Hmong people, and that the men wear the traditional dress as well.
While simple, our room at the Green Bamboo Hotel had an amazing view over the lush green valley behind Sapa.
We walked to the Sapa market. It was stalls of vegetables and other food. Walking through the area were Black Hmong women hawking hand died hemp clothing and silver jewelry to the tourists.
Next Long encouraged us to climb the tallest hill in town which the government has turned into a park. None of the orchids were in bloom, but we enjoyed the view of the town from the top. A Vietnamese traveler took a liking to Tom. He persistently requested to meet at a bar tonight at 8 for dancing and karaoke. Our guide told him our hotel and room number, to our horror, and we parted with vague mentions of meeting.
We stopped in a cafe for cold drinks and to escape the sun for the rest of the afternoon. We relaxed in the cafe and wrote in the journal and wrote code since the internet was not available. The cafe owner claimed that not enough electricity flowed during the day to run the computer.
We returned to the hotel, changed and met Long and had a good dinner at Chapa, Handspans restaurant. We were very tired and returned to the hotel just after eight and retired to bed. After awhile there was a knock on the door, which was frosted glass rather than solid. The voice identified itself as the man from the park. Without opening the door, Tom told him that we did not want to go out drinking and singing karaoke. The man persisted, Tom held steady and walked away from the door.
We could see his figure through the smoky glass for five mintues then he walked away. Soon the knocking started again, this time with Long and the man. We told the man and Long that we did not want to go out. Long replied that the man had flowers for Louisa. It was agreed that they would leave the flowers at the front desk and finally walked away. The whole episode seemed odd and lingered with us. Eventually we fell asleep.
We ate breakfast at the Chapa restaurant. When the waitress delivered our eggs and pancakes to the table, she said that she thought that she was cooking for four people. This caused great laughter with the guides at the next table, but fortunately Long translated for us.
By 8:30 we were hiking out of Sapa with Loc, our local guide. He encouraged us along the trail with his energetic personality. We were actually enjoying the fog that had descended as we walked out of the restaurant and lasted for the first couple of hours of our hike.
After 4km we turned off the dirt road to start along a trail above the rice paddies. A young boy yelled from the road and threw rocks at us, but most of them fell short. Loc yelled back at the boy and eventually got him to stop. Loc told us that the boy is drunk. He could not have been much more than 10, but he has access to the family's supply of corn alcohol and many boys drink it.
Women and girls of the Black Hmong tried to sell us their crafts as we walked along, but we refrained. We continued along the trail through their village, Lao Chai. We walked in front of the school building in which the last room was currently a small store, with at least one dozen children in front of it. We stopped for a quick break. Loc asked if we would buy cand for the children but we did not want to ruin their teeth. Instead we bought a locally made slightly sweet crackers. This did not receive a very welcome response from the children, oh well. The begging continued all day.
We walked through continuous rice paddies and the occasional farm house with water buffalo, ducks and chickens. The waterworks were incredible. Irrigation canals split, crossed each other at different levels, and joined again. We even saw several water powered rice grinders, which take about 3 hours to grind a potful of rice to powder.
At one point we crossed a stream and Loc announced we were in the next town, Tavan. This is a Tai (zi) community who are Buddhist rather than Catholic like the Hmong. This means that it is strictly forbidden for intermarriages. We found this interesting considering how close they live.
Loc stopped in a nice looking farm house with a concrete courtyard. He offered us tea which we drank while resting on the kindergarten size chairs.
We continued walking for a few more hours through paddies varying from seedlings to almost ripe. We passed through another Black Hmong village, Giang La Chat, before stopping in a shady patch for lunch.
Loc spread out a huge amount of food for lunch that we greedily ate. The GPS said that we had walked 13 kilometers, but it felt like twice that.
We continued winding down the valley on the road, passed by occasional Russian-made Minsk motorbikes and jeeps. The sun came out and really started to heat us up, especially as we lost altitude. Some water buffaloes had the right idea, lying down in the mud to keep cool. We passed many recent landslides, which Loc explained were from a heavy rainstorm 2 weeks ago that buried many houses and killed 25 people.
Along the way, Loc explained the way of life for many of the villagers in the valley. Many are not able to grow enough food to feed their large families for the entire year. Usually one of their 6-8 children gets some schooling, and the infant mortality rate is pretty high. Despite this, they seem to smile a lot and enjoy life.
We stopped for another welcome break in the village of Supan, where the Dzao people live. We gulped some water and rested while Loc packed the food for the rest of our trip.
We left the road and descended steeply to the Ban Ho village next to the river. The heat was really getting to us, but we persevered and were rewarded when we crossed the Nam Nza river and entered the Nai family home. They have a clean house with an ancient black-and-white TV and a small loft for guests. We rested our feet for a few minutes, then changed into our Tevas and headed to the swimming hole. Loc called it the "international swimming pool" and it was a short hike over to the La Ve river with a small waterfall.
We could not get in the water fast enough. The feeling was incredible - the water was cool and clean, and we splashed around for a while before pulling out on a rock in the middle to rest. We jumped into a deep part, then swam back and dried off. Tom took the opportunity to wash all of his clothing - it was already wet anyway.
We chatted with Loc a bit while drying off, then hiked back and changed into drier clothes. After relaxing a bit while Loc cooked, we played with their 7-year old daughter, Lan, for a while before dinner. Louisa was fascinated by the family sow and six week-old piglets.
They set a small, low table on the , and proceeded to cover it with plates of food - a veritable feast! We had purple sticky rice, noodles with pigs feet, tofu with tomato, beef with sprouts, spicy pork fat with peppers, boiled cabbage, something sorta like spinach, and french fries. We ate all of it, and loved it. Loc translated occasionally between the family and us, but mostly we communicated with smiles and gestures.
After dinner, Louisa got out our Vietnamese phrasebook, and we proceeded to amuse everyone with our butchered pronunciation of their six-toned language. We did also manage to do a bit of journaling, in between singing songs with Loc and playing with Lan.
We slept restlessly all night due to the heat, the thin mattress on the floor and overall unfamiliar surroundings. By the time we climbed down from the loft, Loc was in the midst of cooking breakfast - banana pancakes and a Vietnamese specialty of sticky rice stuffed with beans cooked in banana leaves. As with Vietnamese tradition, we ate until we could eat no more and gave the rest of the pancakes to Lan, Moon and some other children that were at the house.
Before we left the family agreed to take a with us. Lan laughed when we showed her the one of her on Tom's lap. All of the children enjoyed playing with Tom, and he enjoyed it as well. We left the beautiful spot shortly after 9am. There had been hard rain during the early morning hours, but it was clearing, and the humidity had not let up at all.
Not a leaf moved in the trees. It was hot, and still. The sun started to beat down on us and we looked longingly at every stream. Then we started to climb. We pulled into the homestay village of Thanz Phu at 10:30 hot and exhausted. We gratefully shed our packs and sat unmoving under the ceiling fan for several minutes.
We rested in the house for a while, then Loc fed us some delicious soup for lunch - ramen noodles never tasted so good! We even napped a little after lunch, but managed to motivate at about 1:30. We put on lighter packs and went to visit several other villages, including one that is quite poor. On the way, we saw a boy riding his water buffalo across the river.
When we walked into the Nam Sang village with Loc, the children immediately started to follow us. We passed a house where most of the men in the village were working together to build a new house, using tools and techniques that probably haven't changed for generations. We entered another house, although "hut" probably gives you a better idea.
The tiny room soon filled with every child that could fit. We sat on the bamboo benches/mattresses that filled half of the hut. The children were in various states of cleanliness and nakedness. Many children, mostly toddler size, were completely naked or wore a T-shirt. They stared at us while Loc chatted with some of the mothers. The latter looked as if they should still be playing in the fields not breast feeding the babies on their laps.
One child had sores all over her face and other parts of her body. Loc told us she has measles. He said he would ask the doctor in Sapa what to do, and bring it to them next time, even if he paid for it himself.
We moved to another house to distribute the medicines that Loc had brought. He had antibiotic ointment for infections, ibuprofen for headaches, and worm medicine for the kids. He even had eye drops for pinkeye and other irritations. He told us he had bought these with funds from other tourists, and we resolved to help him in this worthy endeavor.
Loc is a one-man Red Cross out here, helping this particular tribe in so many ways. He recently brought them 50kg of rice, to help keep them from starving. We spent a sobering 30 minutes with the women and children while Loc explained their predicament. They have only a small amount of productive land, and can only grow enough rice to feed themselves for half a year. Mudslides wiped out half their crop this year already, as well as killing 2 people. They used to supplement their income by selling wood from the forest, but the government now prevents them on environmental grounds. Mix in a healthy dose of illiteracy and lack of family planning, and you have the disaster they are experiencing.
If it happens that you are so moved to help in some way, send money, used clothing, or medicine to Loc at this address: Minh Loc, Chapa Cafe, 29 Cau May St, Sapa, Lao Cai, Viet Nam.
We climbed down the mountain in silence reflecting on what we had just seen. We reached the rickety bridge across the river, but rather than crossing Loc led us below the bridge where we all dove in.
It felt fantastic on such a hot afternoon! It seemed that the moment Louisa climbed out to dry on a rock all of the villagers crossed the bridge. They stared and laughed at her - Loc assured her it was her white skin not that she was lying there in her bra and underwear.
After we had cooled off, we hiked the hour back to the homestay village, Thanz Phu. Along the way we passed more water buffalo, pigs with tiny piglets, some just a few days old, and goats with their babies, again just a few days old. The afternoon was wonderful, but we were glad to reach the homestay again. Our legs were exhausted.
We relaxed for awhile and wrote in the journal until Loc showed up with another magnificent meal. We ate with the entire family. Even then we could not eat all of the food.
Until bedtime, we chatted in the common room with Loc about the plight of the poorest village, and his efforts to help them. We declined to sing Vietnamese karaoke - our host is an electrician, and has an incredible mishmash of half-fixed stereo stuff powered by a water wheel - and instead went to sleep since we have to wake up early in the morning.
The rain poured from the skies most of the night and was still falling when our alarm woke us at 5:45am. After a filling breakfast of banana pancakes, we hit the trail at 7:00.
The rain fell steadily as we tried to ascend a hill on its muddy path. We succeeded, but it frequently seemed that we were taking two steps forward and one (slide) back.
Two local woman carrying baskets overflowing with goods on their backs passed us. The rain slowed to a sprinkle as we hit the somewhat level road. The rain had done its damage. Parts of the road were pure mud pit. Our boots collected inches of extra mud weighing down our legs.
As we passed houses along the trail or road, the families would smile and chatter. Undoubtedly they were commenting about the strange foreigners that looked in such a bad state. Surprisingly, our humor stayed very high and we sang, joked and chatted most of the way to the main road. The last 25 minutes were straight up, though. Straight up a slick mud path. At one point Louisa thought she might be stuck as the first two times she tried to climb up she slid right back down. Tom got her out, though.
The sight of the Russian jeep waiting for us in the village made us elated. The villagers laughed at our appearance and called others to their doors to look. We took a picture to remember our mud-encrusted state, then used the hose rigged up for the motorbikes to reduce our load of mud. Loc cooked us a delicious bowl of Pho, then we hit the road.
The ride in was smooth, amazing considering the rainfall and damage to the road. Long and Huong had a hotel room waiting for us to take hot showers. It took a few washings to feel clean, but soon we were on the road.
For the rest of the day Huong drove us along the windy road back to Hanoi. The constant jostling caused Tom to hit his head frequently. Both of us felt queasy, so we looked out the window and watched the countryside pass. Huong didn't seem to think that there was any reason to slow down, though - he passed a couple of trucks so closely that the side mirrors hit.
The houses looked very similar to those in the remote villages. In fact, we were surprised to notice that life seems similar along the main road to the isolated villages of the ethnic people. The houses appeared to be similar in size and construction. Agricultural fields surrounded the houses. Although some fruit trees and vegetables are mixed in with the vast rice paddies. The people walk along a paved road rather than dirt trails, but their houses only have dirt paths to their doors.
Men and women walk along the road with huge loads, either two baskets loaded with goods hanging from either end of a bamboo pole resting on the bearer's shoulders, or entire bamboo trunks across the shoulders.
Most have electricity from individual generators powered by water (irrigation canals run throughout the fields of water-intensive wet rice). Many have rigged some form of running water. Outhouses leave much to be desired with their unsanitary disposal of sewage into running streams that run underneath the boards. No showers or baths exist. They use buckets or swim in a river. The houses do not have refrigeration. Cold beverages or ice cannot be found.
Motorbikes, industrial trucks and the occasional small bus shared the road with our car. Other cars are a rarity. It is strange to realize that most families plan to have a bicycle and dream of a motorbike (probably used) but owning a car is not a thought. The houses do not have anything resembling a driveway, and many are not accessible except on foot.
The Vietnamese have mastered the art of maximizing the cargo load on an individual vehicle. The bicycles, cyclos and motorbikes take strange forms with the size of the loads. At times the cargo hides the driver, making hazardous road conditions even more so. Frequently we spotted two on a motorbike; the driver and the passenger with the latter holding a TV, computer or other fragile goods on between them. We counted some motorbikes with as many as 5 people. Others, with light loads like wicker baskets, would be stacked 15 feet high.
The first real change in the roadside communities started about 100km from Hanoi. Motorbikes became more prevalent, the buildings are made out of cement and could be two stories tall. We passed grisly evidence of the danger on the roads - a car and truck had a headon, and both were badly wrecked.
We arrived in Hanoi after 8pm tired and hungry. We checked into the Galaxy hotel and ate at their mediocre there. The Galaxy is clean and modern, but is not as well located. We were glad to be in a comfortable bed and have air conditioning, though!
Lan, the guide for the day, met us with Huong at 8:00. We showed up with a bag full of wet, muddy laundry and headed out in search of a laundromat. Rain was falling which eliminated a few places, but the one across from our previous hotel agreed for us to pick it up that night.
The first scheduled stop was Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. Tom changed into pants in the car, but it turns out many tourists had shorts on and were fine. We waited in an incredibly long line that moved quite quickly, only taking about 20 minutes to get inside. During the wait, we watched the goose-stepping guards do a formal change - it took about 30 seconds. We stayed carefully inside the red lines, flanked by the armed guards, as we walked slowly inside the building and into the cold room containing the body. Soft lighting lit his features, and he looked pretty good, despite having been dead for thirty-one years. Tom was reminded of visiting Lenin's tomb in Moscow, after which this experience was patterned.
Outside the tomb, we saw many asians dressed up for pictures in front. Particularly notable were a group of old women in purple velvet gowns, which signified that their sons died in the war.
Uncle Ho's museum contains an extensive collection of photographs of him, speeches given by him and announcements from him during the years of resistance and triumph. Since many of the labels were in English, it was instructive for us to read the slogans used to make Communism appeal to the masses. The top level displays many modern, abstract images that are supposed to express the anguish then triumph of Vietnam. However, we found that it was odd and not very compelling.
Also in the complex is the one pillar pagoda originally built in 1049. The tiny, attractive temple balances on a central pillar in the middle of a lovely water garden filled with lotus flowers. Three French children were lighting incense and had removed their shoes to do so. Upon returning from their obeisance, the five-year-old was missing a shoe - it had fallen off the step into the water! We chuckled over the family's resigned reaction, and realized that he would have no trouble finding shoes, unlike us.
Before lunch we visited one of the temples built with the original citadel. Originally the citadel contained four temples, one in each direction of the compass. The colorful Quan Thanh Temple contains Vietnam's largest bronze statue on its altar.
Lan chose a trendy Hanoi restaurant for lunch. We were the only tourists dining al fresco at Que Huong Cafe. The atmosphere carried the restaurant which served mediocre Vietnamese food. During lunch we talked with Lan, mostly about her boyfriend, sparked by their frequent text messages sent via their mobile phones, but also about modern life in Hanoi.
We stopped by the Handspan office to pick up tickets to the Water Puppet show, and hopped on the internet.
When it opened for the afternoon, we went to the temple of Confucius, aka the Temple of Literature. Women [pic ex1000001 performed] folk music and dancing in one pagoda. The grounds contain numerous stelae listing names of the men who passed the tri-annual national exams. Tortoises form the bases, indicating long life. A large figure of Confucius rests on the main altar of the temple flanked by his four primary pupils. The red walls with gold decoration house many fanciful figures and objects.
The last stop for the day was the 'Hanoi Hilton,' the French-built prison that housed American POWs during the American war. One part of the prison stands, the rest was torn down to build a large shopping mall. The museum portrays an amazingly one-sided story. According to them, the Vietnamese suffered incredible torture and lived in horrendous conditions under the French while the Vietnamese treated the American POWs to delicious food and overall comfortable conditions.
On the way to the hotel, we stopped at Khai Silk and picked up Tom's new robe which looks great. We rested in the hotel for the remainder of the afternoon, which was much needed. Tom's boots were still wet from the muddy walk out yesterday, so he used the hairdryer to speed te drying process. It worked quite well, but the hairdryer did not like it very much.
We found a trendy western restaurant in the guidebook, but when the taxi got us to the correct address, it didn't seem to be there any more. We fell back to a place called Mediterraneo, with pizza and pasta. It was our most expensive meal in Vietnam ($15) but great to have a change of pace. We walked from there to see Louisa's custom-made silk outfit, but despite several fittings, it just didn't fit at all. We argued a bit, and finally they gave us our deposit back.
We were still a little early for the water puppet show, so we walked down the street and bought a cute pink hat for Louisa, who had lost hers on the cruise in China. Then it was time to cram ourselves into the tiny seats (worse than airlines) in the water puppet theater.
The show was moderately entertaining, and prefaced by some very interesting traditional music. We paid a bit extra to take some pictures, but even in the 8th row were too far back for our flash. Several people moved up to the nearly empty front rows to get better photos. About 3 numbers in an asian tourist blocks our view for a minute while he takes his pictures. Shortly after, his entire row of asian tourists got up and filed out - we have no idea what that was about.
After the hour-long show we walked the few blocks to pick up our laundry. The proprietress smiled at our use of Vietnamese to pay and thank her. On the street we flagged down a cyclo - well, flagging was hardly necessary as the man descended upon us. He ardently assured us that we could fit, with the bags of laundry. Then tried to charge us 7 times the going rate for the ride.
We flagged down a second cyclo driver who was eager to take Louisa and was willing to go for a reasonable price, 3 times going rate. Sitting on the front of a bicycle watching the madness of the Hanoi streets was an experience. We were glad that it was late at night and the streets were about half as crowded as usual.
Louisa practiced her Vietnamese to trade greetings and names with her friendly driver. Tom fended off offers of an hour-long ride along the Red River, and finally of massage - "Madam do anything you want". He firmly declined, pointing to Louisa in the other cyclo. We took pictures as we rode along, and back at the hotel Tom ignored complaints from his driver as he paid the fare. We then crashed hard.
One thing that took us a while to get used to was how the sidewalks are used as communal space for nearly everything except walking. In any given block, stores have their wares completely covering the sidewalk, bicycles and motos are parked on it, families have set up stoves and are cooking, or tables and chairs fill the space for eating dinner. It is acceptable practice for restaurants to place their kindergarten size tables and chairs on the sidewalk for their dining rooms, with only the kitchens in the building. Of course, this means that pedestrians must use the street, with the scooters and cyclos, but drivers seem to respect pedestrian right of way.
Most businesses along the streets have the commercial space closest to the sidewalk with living space in the back of the room. Most try to erect an obstacle to separate the two spaces, but a bed, TV and other living items are often quite apparent. We never completely adjusted to walking by people's bedrooms on the way to the restroom in restaurants, and having their toothbrushes hanging by the sink.
One useful outcome of this practice is that it is easy to tell the popular places. The restaurants and bars favored by the Hanoians are marked by the high number of motos and cyclos parked either on the sidewalk or in the street.
Because the Vietnamese think pale skin is beautiful, women will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid the sun. During daylight hours, most women wear elbow-length gloves and scarves across their faces below their conical hats, especially when riding on a scooter or bicycle. Even on the hottest days, they are completely covered, and with the addition of sunglasses often look like creatures out of Mad Max. Most women in the city do not wear traditional dress, and we rarely saw an ao dai outside of tourist-oriented elegant restaurants and hotels.
Most hotel rooms in Indochina have an energy saving, but annoying, set up. In order to have electricity in the room the hotel's key must be inserted in a slot by the door. This powers the lights, outlets as well as the air conditioning. In the hot, humid summer months these resulted in stifling hot hotel rooms at the end of a day of touring. Tom figured out that it probably works on breaking the beam of light, so we have traveled from hotel to hotel using combs, binder clips and tiny packets of q-tips (conveniently provided by the establishments themselves) instead of the key. We carefully turn out all lights, but revel in a cool room when we return. The maids sometimes foil our plans, but more times than not we have enjoyed the fruits of our trick.
Long and Hoang met us at the Galaxy Hotel at 8 for the drive to Ha Long city. However, Lan had told us about Moka Cafe and we convinced Long and Hoang that 'American' coffee was needed. We chatted about Western influences in Vietnam and noted that McDonald's and other fast food restaurants had not opened branches yet. In fact, chocolate is rare in Hanoi. We did find some low quality tiny chocolate bars, but left much to be desired.
We took an hour to check out. The front desk clerk wanted to charge us $3 for a dirty towel. After involving the assistant manager and finally the general manager - these people have no idea what "customer service" means - Louisa threatened to walk out on the entire bill. That worked, they gave in.
By 9am we were on the road. Fortunately this road was wider and straighter, at least the part that was finished, which made the 3 hours pass quickly. We did pass one overturned bus, but we didn't see any casualties. At the tourist pier we waited while the inflatable kayaks were loaded, then boarded our private tour boat and set out to cruise through the bay. We were quite comfortable - this boat could easily have held 20 people, and slept at least 12.
The crew cooked an amazing lunch of fresh calamari with a soy chili sauce, fresh crabs with a garlic chili sauce, and fresh snails. We devoured the delicious food then perched on deck to watch the beautiful limestone islands and pillars pass.
Ha Long Bay really deserves its reputation - it is fabulously beautiful. The sheer cliffs and carved walls of the thousands of islands, and the calm, green water are truly stunning. Unfortunately, there are thousands of boats - tourist boats, sampans, fishermen, and others we could not identify - that are slowly destroying the environment. The coral does not look at all healthy, and the still waters float with garbage. Go see it before it is too late.
We drove to the "Grotto of Wonder" - a marketing name if ever we've heard one. It is a paved walkway through a series of 3 nicely-lit limestone caverns. We walked through and snapped a few pictures. Worth a stop if you're in the area.
Then we motored for an hour or so through more islets and a floating village. Ha Long Bay must have more natural arches per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world - we saw dozens. Some were quite impressive, dividing islands in half with a tunnel of ocean barely 3 feet high at high tide.
We arrived at a lagoon with a nice beach late in the afternoon. Long had inflated the kayaks, and we set out to explore the area. We quickly found out that inflatable kayaks do not go where you want - they prefer to circle in one place. After several frustrating attempts at paddling together, we took turns, and that worked better.
We spent an hour getting up close to the rocks and checking out small islands, then returned to the boat for dinner. The crew again served a good meal, with soup, beef, and pork. After dark, we paddled to the beach. The moon had not risen, but we navigated by the starlight illuminating the faint outlines of the limestone mountains.
On the beach, our eyes adjusted to the light easily. We drank a bottle of Bordeaux and swam. The water illuminated with bioluminescence as we moved through it. The dark night intensified the brightness of the flecks of light. We enjoyed the warm water and light show. While drying out on the beach, we gazed at the star-filled sky and Tom saw a long shooting star, which we took as a good omen for the wonderful night. We grew tired and climbed into the tent.
We fell asleep despite the heat and humidity, but not for long. Just before midnight the almost full moon rose from behind one of the limestone hills lighting the night. We chatted and played word games as we waited to become sleepy enough to fall asleep again.
After a couple of hours, we noticed an ominous black cloud cover the moon, and quickly buttoned up the tent. Just in time - the heavens opened and the rain crashed down. We huddled in the tent for half hour, then decided to go out an play in the rain. At that moment, the rain stopped.
The humidity was even higher than before, and we were soaked with sweat and salt from the sea. Sand had stuck to nearly every part of our bodies, the tent was a sauna. We finally decided to pull the mattress on to the beach, cover ourselves with Deet, and try to catch whatever tiny breeze could cool us. Finally, at around 4am, we fell asleep.
We woke every hour. At 5am the sun rose over the mountain. At 6am birds sang in the trees on the island. At 7am a man stood above Louisa holding one of our bags.
When she awoke, he noticed and dropped the bag. She reached to wake Tom and the man signaled that he wanted a cigarette. Then he turned and walked down the beach to his waiting boat. In shock, we glanced at the bag and noticed all of the zippers were closed, and were relieved that we had woken up just in time. We checked inside the tent to find the dry bag there with all of its contents. Then we opened the camelback. One pocket was empty, the one that had the GPS.
The man had disappeared in his boat, and the realization that he had our GPS sunk in. The escort boat was just motoring to in front of the island, so we grabbed the rest of our things and paddled to the boat. The Vietnamese crew greeted us. We asked for Long and they indicated that he was out in the other kayak. Louisa got on deck and used the Vietnamese phrase book to tell the crew that we had just been robbed. They reacted with great alarm, ran out on deck and started calling for Long. We waited. Five minutes later, we started back to the island for the rest of the things and saw Long along the way. We told him about the man taking the GPS and other miscellaneous items. He suggested that we could not go after the man, so we should just have breakfast, and later in the morning go to the police station and give a report.
We realized that we had been very lucky. Last night, Tom had emptied most of the things from the CamelBak, because we knew it would get wet. Also, the man did not find our drybag, which contained the camera. We were also berating ourselves for our stupidity - we were sleeping in the open, on the beach, with our things right beside us. We were just lucky that he didn't take the whole bag and disappear before we awoke. Finally, of all of our expensive gear, the GPS is probably the most dispensable. We did lose a nice collection of waypoints from China, Laos, and Vietnam, but that's life.
We swam to wash off the sweat, and then sat down to breakfast. Long asked if we wanted to go to the police station right then, which meant bypassing more time in Ha Long Bay. We decided to enjoy the morning and headed out in the kayak. Long paddled to the island to collect the tents and gear - his guilt for the event showing on his face despite our protests.
Tom guided us through the clear waters close to and under the limestone cliffs. We investigated one of the many prawn farms. We observed life of some of the 3000 people who live in floating villages in the park and some fishermen. The sun beat down on us, so we sought the shady side of the cliffs. At the end, we paddled to the island to check if the man might have dropped the GPS when getting on his boat - the batteries were dead anyway - but did not see it.
The tidal pattern confused us. It had clearly been high tide when we went to bed at 9pm the night before, but at 10am today, when one would expect another high tide, it was still at nearly the lowest point, albeit rising slowly. We never did get an explanation.
After diving in the water one last time, the crew loaded us aboard and cruised quickly to Cat Ba Island. By 11 we had arrived at the island, and were talking with the local policeman, a young man with "Border Patrol" on his shoulder badge. He wrote a fairly complete report, asking for descriptions of the items, the man, and his boat. He was pessimistic about recovery, but promised to notify Long's agency if anything was found.
After a half hour of that, we hopped on motorbikes and headed across the island to the main town. We walked through town briefly, then returned to the Handspan restaurant for lunch. Again we had terrific hardshell crabs - tough to eat, but worth it. Also we had delicious calamari, and vegetables. Long then surprised us by telling us that we could have a room to nap in for the afternoon. We gratefully accepted, and journaled in front of the fan.
At 3:30 we met Long in the lobby and walked along the waterfront to the hydrofoil, picking up an ice cream along the way. The hydrofoil was packed. Every seat was taken, with three per bench assigned seats. These seats made airplane seats seem generous. Fortunately the Russian built boat made the trip in an hour, and did not rattle apart against what its appearance suggested.
Huong's smiling face stood out in the crowd of taxi, cyclo drivers and others shouting for business. His warm welcome was remarkable since he had been waiting for us since 11am (someone at his company told him the wrong time). He drove us safely back to Hanoi. We were grateful to have him behind the wheel as we passed a terrible accident on the other side of the road. I small minivan was crushd into half of its size by a large industrial truck whose engine was crumpled itself. After seeing three bad accidents in the last few days, we were glad to get out at the Salut Hotel in the Old Quarter.
The hotel has a great location along the shoe street, near Hoen Kiem Lake and near the Water Puppet Theater. The room was huge, and we had a balcony for a great birds-eye view of the action at street level. We walked along the street and saw an attractive restaurant with some tables filled. It turns out it was the restaurants first day. Other than taking awhile to deliver the food, it was pretty good. After dinner we walked upstairs to check email for the first time in awhile before returning to the hotel for much-wanted sleep.
Revised: Wed Feb 13 11:37:55 2008 on