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Southeast Asia Update #5 [Northern Vietnam]

The further into Vietnam we traveled, the more enthralled we became. After bumming it at the beaches for a couple of weeks it was now time to head to our first Northern Vietnam destination, Hanoi, the capital of the country. For the next two weeks, we’d find ourselves caught up in the chaos of Hanoi, on a luxury cruise in Ha Long Bay, and at peace in the mountain village of Sa Pa.

Hanoi

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I knew next to nothing about Hanoi upon arrival (a common trend throughout this trip), but it ended up being nothing like I imagined. What I did know prior to this trip was that Hanoi was a focal point in the Vietnam War due to it being home base for the communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese leader who led the northern half of Vietnam against the U.S.-backed South. The last major metropolitan city we visited was Saigon in Southern Vietnam, so my expectations of Hanoi were based on that. Saigon impressed me with its clear signs of prosperity and dense groupings of skyscrapers. When we landed at the airport in Hanoi, called our taxi and headed to our hotel, the first thing I noticed was the relative calm and lack of skyscrapers. During the drive to our hotel, we passed by rice farms, small markets, and residential areas. For further comparison of the two major cities in Vietnam, Saigon is about 2,000 square kilometers with a population of eight million while Hanoi is 3,000 square kilometers with a population of seven million. This seemingly small difference gave Hanoi a slightly more rural feel. Coming in from the airport to the north, it wasn’t until we crossed a bridge over the Red River that we began to see signs that we were in a metropolitan city. Buildings became larger and more densely grouped, but seldom did we see skyscrapers; at most we’d see a few buildings that were maybe 10 stories high as well as a few large condos being built in the distance. Things became more interesting as we entered the thick of it. That relative calm slowly became more chaotic as the congested, “lawless” Vietnamese traffic revealed itself again. We continued driving through increasingly narrow streets. Occasionally we caught glimpses of interesting monuments and wall murals; we noted them on Google Maps to return to later. Eventually, we entered the famous Hanoian district known as the Old Quarter. Much similar to Hoi An (the last city we visited), the Old Quarter is a section of the city with its ancient history almost perfectly preserved. It’s one of those places where we realized just how far away from home we were. The Old Quarter is where foreigners usually end up and was where the majority of hotels — including ours — were located.

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Later in the evening, after checking into our hotel, we headed further into the Old Quarter for dinner and exploration. First we walked a little further south to a manmade lake know as Hoàn Kiêm Lake. It is home of the island temple Ngoc Son with its red arched bridge allowing for passage over the water, as well as the Thap Rua (Tortoise Island). There is a myth here involving a giant turtle, a sword, and a dragon but I’m hazy on the details. There also used to be an actual giant turtle that supposedly lived in that lake but it died recently.

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Ngoc Son temple over Kiem Lake

We left the lake and headed back north to the heart of Old Quarter. By this time the sun had set and it was getting darker out. This is when Old Quarter truly began to show its liveliness. While backpacking it’s hard to remember which day of the week it is, so it didn’t really occur to us that we made it to Hanoi on a Saturday, but we were so happy we did. We ate at a slightly disappointing vegan restaurant before deciding to explore the nightlife a bit. All throughout Old Quarter, tourists, locals, and their children were pouring into the streets. Outdoor seating at restaurants and bars were almost completely filled. Music resonated from some of the establishments while offering cheap (and sometimes free) drinks. Earlier we had seen an inviting alleyway lined with shops and restaurants and a few pedestrians passing through. At night, that same alleyway turned into a densely populated food & drink street. Tables were completely filled with tourists and locals alike making it almost impossible to pass through. We made it through, however, only to find ourselves in the four-way intersection know as Beer Corner. The name is self-explanatory. At one end of the street we could hear live music, so we headed in that direction. We found the source of the music, and it ended up being a group of young musicians surrounded by a large circle of onlookers in the middle of the street where only a few brave motorbikes attempted passing through. A band played an assortment of originals and covers, while a handful of fans sang and danced close by them. Throughout the night the lead singer would be switched out for another. Madison and I did another loop around the block before settling on a bar with outdoor seating close to the live music. Here we drank a few beers and people-watched for about an hour before heading home.

 

We were amazed at how cosmopolitan this area was. The streets were filled with people from all over the world, and at this point in the night, many of them were more on the younger side. I had never seen so much diversity up to this point; I was kind of in awe.

Following our first crazy night in Hanoi, the rest of our three-night stay was filled with discovering points of interest and trying new foods. First, we found the infamous train road which is popular because it’s basically a railroad track stretched between a narrow residential area. Like most points of interest in SEA, the tracks were lined with tourists scattered about trying to photograph the quaint road. Some of the locals even had small restaurants and shops set up along the tracks.

As we scaled the tracks we idly wondered if this railway was still operational. It almost seemed absurd that a train would still pass through there considering how busy and narrow it was. Our question was soon answered when a local boy started yelling for everyone to get clear of the tracks. Seconds later we began hearing a train horn in the distance. It didn’t take long for the tourists to clear the tracks as the horn quickly got closer and louder. Next thing we knew, a giant passenger train came barrelling through the narrow passage as us tourists stood there dumbfounded just a few feet away. The train was fast and loud, and the show was over after about 30 seconds. Being that close to something so powerful left me with a spike of adrenaline. But after that, all was calm again on the train road.

 

A few other landmarks we visited were the St. Joseph’s Cathedral and Hang Ma street, the latter being where we saw a stretch of wall murals depicting historical Vietnamese and Korean art.

Hanoi is a massive city split into several urban districts, but I think the main attractions are the Old Quarter and French Quarter. Kind of like the Old Quarter, the French Quarter is another area with very characteristic architecture. In this case, the architecture is all of French design left over from earlier days of colonialism. Madison and I briefly walked a few blocks through the French Quarter and felt like we had really been transported to France for a short time.

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Opera House in the French Quarter

Gradually we acclimated to a new culture and started to feel a little more adventurous in our food choices. Hanoi is where we tried the well-known sandwich called Banh Mi, which is basically just Vietnamese-style veggies and meat in between French bread. It was cheap and really hit the spot during our midday city adventures.

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First time trying Banh Mi

Aside from endless cups of Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk, we also tried an interesting Vietnamese staple called egg coffee. Egg yolk is added to the coffee in a special way that creates a thick, frothy layer over the top. This sounds weird on paper but actually looks and tastes amazing.

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Egg Coffee

One thing I really wanted to try but didn’t discover in time was traditional pho with quay (deep-fried breadsticks). Apparently, as you’re eating your pho you can also dip these deep-fried sticks of dough into your soup broth for a combination of sweet and salty. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the magic word (quay) when asking locals where I could find this special pho meal.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t see and do all that we wanted during our brief stay in Hanoi. Even though we’d end up returning to Hanoi on two separate occasions, those days were spent revisiting our favorite food spots and preparing for the next big adventure. The next big adventure after our first three nights in Hanoi was the majestic limestone paradise called Ha Long Bay.

Ha Long Bay

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Almost halfway into our trip, it was finally time to embark on our much-anticipated cruise through Ha Long Bay. It felt like a huge milestone to have made it to this point in our journey. About a week prior we had been grappling with whether we should book an overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay or just a day cruise. Ultimately we chose the overnight cruise because we thought it would allow for a full range of activities at a slightly slower pace. Researching online we learned that you really get what you pay for when it comes to these cruises, so we settled on a (slightly more than) mid-range company called Era Cruises.

In the early morning of November 13th, Era Cruises sent a “luxury” mini-van to our hotel where we joined four other passengers ready to ride three hours to Ha Long Bay. Two of the passengers were a couple from Singapore and the other two were a couple from Denmark. The couple from Singapore was extremely chatty while the couple from Denmark mostly spoke amongst themselves in their native language. Whenever we’ve met other foreigners in SEA the conversation is usually about the differences and similarities between our cultures. We ended up chatting with the Singaporean couple the entire ride to Ha Long Bay learning a lot about their life at home and some of what they knew about other parts of the world. The ride went quickly and smoothly due to the engaging conversation and we arrived at the boat launch in the afternoon. We got out of our van and joined up with several other passengers of the Era Cruises boat. They herded us over to a pier where we hopped on a small boat that would take us to the main ship. Along the way, we passed by 15 other cruise ships all anchored and awaiting their passengers. Eventually, we spotted the beautiful Era Cruises ship we had seen in pictures.

Era Cruises ship was a four-story vessel with 18 passenger cabins. Once we boarded the boat we were immediately directed to the third-floor restaurant. There the manager of the company gave us a welcoming speech and detailed our itinerary. The list of activities included lunch, kayaking, swimming, happy hour at the bar, dinner, and relaxation. The next morning would include a rowboat trip to some natural caves closer to shore, lunch, and then relaxation while heading back to the pier. For people that chose the two-night package, they’d have an opportunity for even more kayaking. Our initial lunch was an elegant four-course meal, each plate being brought out as soon as we finished the previous.

Kayaking ended up being our favorite activity as they let us freely explore the massive limestone cliffs peppered throughout the small portion of the bay we were brought to. As sunset came around we were directed back to the boat where we were allowed to swim in the warm water and even jump off of the boat.

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Happy hour was buy one get one free and we had the chance to mingle with the crew while they entertained and taught us to cook spring rolls. Dinner was buffet style, and afterward, we retired to our luxurious cabin.

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Early the next morning we had a quick breakfast then rallied towards the back of the boat where we were to be ferried to a cave entrance. Once near the cave we unloaded from the ferry and got on these small bamboo rowboats piloted by young Vietnamese. They took us underneath limestone cave openings created by water pressure millions of years ago.

It was a peaceful experience but honestly a little disappointing, because we knew beforehand that some cruises took tourists to even more elaborate caves elsewhere in the bay. Still, given all that Era Cruises had to offer, we were able to shrug off our minor disappointment in the caves. By noon we had eaten a buffet lunch on the ship and got ready to disembark again for shore and our shuttle home.

What I’ll probably never be able to convey through words or pictures was just how majestic Ha Long Bay’s maze of limestone islands was. After all was said and done we had wished we chose two nights on the cruise. One night meant that we kind of flew through our activities, even though we could’ve kayaked for much longer than the time allotted to us. Also, the panoramic views of the bay from atop our ship’s deck were intoxicating and mesmerizing. I could’ve spent the entire trip up there sipping beer and laying on a lawn chair. If we were to come back in the future we would definitely bring friends or family to share the experience with.

Our shuttle from Ha Long Bay took us back to Hanoi where we spent one more night before heading to Sa Pa.

Sa Pa

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Tucked away deep in a mountainous valley 1,500 meters above sea level sits the tiny town of Sa Pa. Known for its rice terraces and culturally unique hill tribe people, Sa Pa is probably the most exotic place we will have visited by the end of this trip.

From Hanoi, we were picked up at our hotel in the morning by a passenger bus which would take us five hours up windy roads to Sa Pa. Despite all of the worrisome things we’ve heard about passenger buses to Sa Pa, ours turned out to be relatively smooth. Bus drivers in Vietnam tend to be the most aggressive people on the road, but our driver got us to our destination in one piece, and we hardly felt like we had navigated around 400 twists and turns leading up the mountain. Five hours later we had reached Sa Pa Station located in the heart of the little city.

Sa Pa is home to eight distinct ethnic minority tribes: the H’mong, Dao, Tay, Giay, Muong, Thai, Hoa, and Xa Pho. The H’mong make up over 50% of the tribal minority and were definitely the most commonly seen. All of the different tribes had distinct garment colors and styles, but we liked the H’mong’s the best with their colorful yet predominately black attire. Walking throughout the town you can see clusters of similarly dressed tribal folk wandering the area like little street gangs. Different tribes had pop-up shops where they sold vibrant, hand-made clothes and souvenirs. Tribal villagers would frequently walk up to us asking if we were interested in shopping; they were very demanding about it too sometimes. If you successfully refused shopping they would then ask if you were interested in doing a trek to their village outside of the city. This is actually a normal activity some tourists do, but Madison and I waited until a couple of days later to actually take one of the tribal people up on this offer. While sitting at a park on our first day in Sa Pa, a H’mong tribeswoman approached us and started some small talk. Since we had already been approached a couple times by demanding tribeswomen we were a little reluctant to start a conversation with this one, but she ended up being kind and non-pushy. A couple of days later we would randomly run into her again on the streets and learn that her name is Chi. She was such a pleasant lady the first time we met her that we were genuinely excited to run into her again. After chatting with her again we decided to take her up on her offer to lead us on a trek to her village the next morning. Chi gave us free bracelets and made us pinky-promise that we would honor the arranged meet up time.

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view from our hotel balcony

Before randomly running into Chi that day we were actually about to do our own little trek to the Cat Cat Village which was about a 30-minute walk outside of Sa Pa. When we got to Cat Cat Village we learned that there was an entrance fee and paid it. It’s always an awkward feeling in SEA to have to pay for something that we had hoped would be an authentic experience, but we really wanted to see the village and didn’t mind supporting the locals in this way. Cat Cat Village is set among hilly terrain further into the valley below Sa Pa. People make their way down stone steps that zig-zag through homes and shops set up by the H’mong inhabitants. Along the way there are quirky monuments and viewpoints that allow you to see the vast landscape and rice terraces. Farmers tend to their land while children and animals run freely. The windy stone staircase eventually led us to the valley floor where the locals built a really cool plaza along a river. A waterfall can be seen on one end of the plaza downriver while shops and exhibits were spread about upriver.

The whole setup gave us that dreaded Disneyland vibe, but it was still an impressive showcase of local culture, engineering, and imagination.  Instead of walking all the way back up the steep staircase out of the valley we decided to hop on one of the many motorbike taxies ferrying people back to the top. Cat Cat Village was definitely a tourist trap but still worth the visit.

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Our last full day in Sa Pa was the day we had arranged with Chi to trek to her village. We met her out front of Sa Pa Station as planned and began our journey at the city center. Chi led us by foot to the outskirts of the city, through the back of a local neighborhood, and onto a rocky path that marked the end of urban terrain. From here she led us increasingly higher into the surrounding mountains. Madison and I felt right at home hiking through bushes and trees at high elevation due to our upbringing in the Pacific Northwest back in the states. That familiar feeling diminished a bit as we encountered cows and water buffalo grazing freely on the mountainside. We soon crossed paths with other tribespeople leading their own sets of tourists to their respective villages.

As we broke through the trees at the peak of a mountain ridge we were rewarded breathtaking panoramic views of the mountains, valley, and the tiny town of Sa Pa off in the distance. Small villages surrounded by rice terraces were also scattered along various hills. Chi pointed out which villages belonged to which hill tribes. She then led us on a descent to her village. As we walked further into the valley we passed by little settlements that contained zero tourists; just locals and farm animals. We stopped at a little market where Chi purchased some fruits and vegetables for us to cook at her house later.

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Further and further we descended down a little path through bamboo trees and rice terraces. Our guide stopped us at an active rice terrace and showed us how the grain grew inside of the green leafy stalks.

 

A little further down slippery mud paths we eventually found ourselves at a neighborhood of little hut farms. Chi led us into one of these huts and informed us that we had arrived at her home. Her mother was there to greet us as well as an assortment of farm animals like chickens, dogs, and pigs. Other locals of the community were close by but Chi explained to us that it was just her and her mother living in this particular hut. First, they showed us how they dye their garments using indigo plants, then we sat down on little stools and helped prepare our lunch by picking morning glory leaves off of their stems and watching Chi stir-fry the rest of our vegetables over a bamboo woodfire. About 20 minutes later our meal consisting of rice and stir-fried vegetables was done. It was a simple yet delicious meal that required no extra sauces or seasoning. Chi’s mother joined us for lunch and we made small talk learning about the H’mong way of life.  When we were all finished Chi walked into another room and returned with a sticky rice dessert and some rice wine! We threw back a few shots of rice wine while Chi offered to take us further into the village and run some errands with her; we agreed to accompany her.

Feeling a little buzzed from the alcohol we gleefully set out on a journey further down the valley and into the village. At a certain point, we broke out into open space without trees and huts to hinder the view. Madison and I were absolutely awe-struck at the expansive view of the green, lush valley with its rice terraces and a natural river running through the center. The sun was at just the right position in the sky to accentuate the green and gold of the vegetation while sunrays jutted through the clouds. There have been few times in my life where the sight of the natural landscape has sent euphoric sensations through my body. It was one of those views that make you feel like you’re in a hyperreal painting or computer desktop background. Although I tried many times my measly iPhone camera could not capture it. Staring at this view I was suddenly very envious of these hill tribe people. They all seemed so content in their valley living much simpler than the life I know at home in the U.S. It occurred to me that these people probably had little to no desire to leave their village, much less visit America in all its modern complexities. Leave it to a little tribal village in a mountain valley of Vietnam to make me truly realize the hubris of the developed world.

The trek didn’t stop there. Prior to leaving her home, Chi had told us about a funeral that was taking place down in the village; we agreed to go. When we got there we found it to be a celebration of life. Dozens of locals who were friends with the recently deceased were gathered around drinking rice wine and celebrating in front of an old funeral building. Drums were being played inside while Madison and I stood outside joining some of the locals in a drinking game reminiscent of the childhood game “Tag”. Someone of the opposite sex would come up to us, pour a shot of rice wine and urge us to drink. Then we would have to go and find someone else of the opposite sex and pour them a drink as well. The cycle continued like this seemingly indefinitely, maybe until the entire party was left with no choice but to stumble home drunk, but we didn’t stick around long enough to see the end. Thirty minutes after arriving at the funeral we set off to walk around the rest of the village. By five o’ clock in the evening, Chi called us a taxi and waited with us for it to arrive.

When we got back to our hotel that night we took off our muddy shoes and reflected on an incredible day. Trekking through the hill tribe villages was probably the most authentic experience of our trip so far. It was thought-provoking and aesthetically beautiful. We decided that, hypothetically, if our trip were to have ended just after that day, we would be satisfied with our journey and would go home fulfilled. Fortunately for us, Sa Pa only represented the halfway point of our adventure and the beginning of a new chapter. The next day we took a bus back to Hanoi for one last night, then boarded a plane the next morning destined for Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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