Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Confession in Sapa, Vietnam

By Sole Sister Lois
I've first heard of the Hmong tribe when I read the beginning chapters of Elizabeth Gilbert's Committed (sequel to Eat Pray Love).If you haven't read it yet, this is the book where Gilbert faces her fears about getting married (again) by traveling in Asia and asking people about their views on marriage.

So she travels to northern Vietnam to visit a Hmong household. She asked the women questions like: “When did you realize that your husband might be somebody you wanted to marry?” Finally when Gilbert asks, “But when did you fall in love with him?” and “What do you believe is the secret to a happy marriage?” the roomful of Hmong women broke out laughing. It was as though she asked them to purchase some calcium supplements! They found her questions downright silly. Gilbert then concluded that the Hmong women do not place their marriages in the center of their emotional lives as do women in the West.

Travel Sapa, Vietnam

As I read this book, I vowed to travel to Vietnam and meet these Hmong people myself. They seemed like such an extraordinary bunch! I would later find out that they were much more than that. They were one of the most beautiful tribe I've ever laid eyes on! I finally had my chance after our Halong Bay adventure. Last stop in Vietnam : the rice terraces of Sapa!

Sapa, Vietnam 2

My first encounter with a Hmong girl was at the town square where the Hmong women were selling clothes, jewelry and souvenirs. I went in a photo frenzy. They were so colorful, beautiful and just plain photogenic! I absolutely forgot the number one rule of travel portrait photography.

The rice terraces are the main attraction of Sapa. Starting trekking Sapa tour out was pretty easy. We followed a well worn path down the slopes. But after a while, the path got muddy and steep and it got harder and harder for us to walk our way down.
Sapa Vietnam 3
A nearby Hmong farmer saw our predicament and smiled at us shyly. He then walked down and showed us the way. He walked with us the whole way and even guided us back to town after the trek. We couldn't imagine how he hiked through the muddy terraces in rubber slippers but he was smiling the entire time. His act of kindness just validated what I already knew about the Hmong tribe: that they are a warm and exceptionally friendly people.

I have to confess though, I didn't really finish the book Committed. It lacked the excitement and wonder of Eat Pray Love. I was bored out of my mind when she got to the part about the history of marriage. I felt like I was back in college with a stack of books for 'required reading'. But something great came out of those first few chapters for me. I came to Sapa, Vietnam to encounter a beautiful town and experience its enchanting people. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The real exploration of tribal cultures Vietnam by motorcycling

By  Phil 
The weather was perfect with the sun out shining bright, no clouds and a fresh breeze blowing in our faces as we started motorbike tour Northern Vietnam. With the best still to come, the scenery was already amazing. As we were climbing up the narrow road, sheer limestone cliffs and surrounding mountains became our constant companions.

Motorcycling Vietnam

We stopped here and there but our first stop would be a small village not too far from Ha Giang. We just had a rough description of how to get there and where to turn but we eventually found it. Taking a hidden side road, crossing a rusty and suspiciously careening and creaking hanging bridge, we pulled into a small and very modest village. As usual the first ones to greet us were the local kids, screaming and shouting wondering what these strange visitors were up to. After wandering around the village for a while, I noticed a small and house with smoke rising out of its little chimney. I was attracted by loud laughter coming from the inside and I decided to give in to my curiosity and have a quick peek. As soon as the family inside spotted me, there was no turning back. I was happily welcomed and dragged inside. It was dim inside with only a couple of windows letting a bit of light in and the room was filled with thick smoke from the fireplace. It seemed to be one big family with several kids, their parents, grandparents and what seemed to be aunts and uncles.

Motorbike Vietnam tour

The very vital grandmother instantly offered us some homemade rice wine. As guests you can’t refuse such an offer so we went along and had one and then a few more. This stuff is strong and hence it didn’t miss its purpose. A bit tipsy, communicating all of sudden got a little bit easier. With a loosened tongue, our basic Vietnamese and the help of a little phrasebook, it actually worked out quite well and we had a great time. Right when we were about to leave and continue our trip, the family insisted for us to stay for lunch which they had prepared in the meantime.With every one of them being pretty assertive, there was again no way to refuse their generous offer. We all sat down on the floor, smiled at each other and ate. It was an experience I will never forget. This family didn’t have much, not even running water, but they were happy to share their meal with two foreigners they had just met. The kindness and open-heartedness of the people in South East Asia once again left me in astonishment.

We said good bye to our friendly hosts and continued our journey to Dong Van. We still had quite a ways to go and time had flown by. As we crossed a beautiful mountain pass with the poetic name of Heaven’s Gate on the way up, we still took our time and stopped several times to take in the beautiful scenery or to get our picture taken with local kids we met by the road. After a while dawn set in and dipped the landscape in a yellow and purple hue. As the last sun rays made it over the mountain tops, we had our first encounters with some of the regions ethnic minorities. Most of them Hmong, with the men dressed in high-necked tunics and matching berets and the women wearing colorful headdresses, carrying heave bamboo baskets on their back. It was so impressive and so different from we had seen before, that we forgot about time. Riding along the serpentine like road in darkness was exhilarating and a bit intimidating at the same time but after a good hour we finally and safely pulled into Dong Van.

Motorbike Northern Vietnam

The weekly market, a very important event for the local hill tribes, was scheduled for the next day. Good timing for us but since we arrived late, most of the hotels and guesthouses were already fully booked. After asking around, we finally found a hotel which had a room. It was actually a nice place and the owners even had arranged our permits at the local police station, which are still needed to tour the Ha Giang region. We finished the day at a local BBQ place where we were once again invited for rice wine. And yet again, we had a great time with the locals and this time it ended not only tipsy but pretty much drunk.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Surreal experience in Sapa, Vietnam

By Asha and Ryan
Sapa – or more accurately, the mountainous countryside around Sapa – is the most stunningly beautiful place we have been since leaving the islands of Thailand’s Krabi provence a few months ago. On this point, Asha and I both agree.

To get to Sapa we took an overnight sleeper train (our favourite mode of transportation) from Hanoi to the border town of Lao Cai, however a bone rattling fever made the trip pretty awful and sleep hard to come by for me. Our hotel (Hanoi Guesthouse – probably the best place we have stayed this year, i think they will get their own post on here later) were incredibly helpful, booking our train tickets, calling out next hotel to organise our pickup at the other end, organising a taxi to the train station and even sending someone from the hotel on motorbike behind our taxi to make sure we got on the right train. In a place like Hanoi, where travelling can be a bit of a headache at times, having this kind of service is just fantastic.

Sapa, Vietnam

From Lao Cai it was only one hour by bus to Sapa, a trip that revealed to us just how mesmerising the scenery in this part of Vietnam is. The region is full of soaring peaks and steep valleys, with terraced fields, rice paddies and thatched roofed villages turning the region (as Asha said) into something out of a National Geographic magazine. Add women in traditional dress (usually chasing you down to sell you their handicrafts), snotty nosed kids and families planting rice across the valley, and yeah, you get the picture.

Sapa is a tourist town high in the mountains, close Fansipan (Vietnam’s highest peak), and it immediately felt very different from everywhere else we had been in south-east asia. The temparatures in Sapa are much lower than everywhere else, with winter temperatures often dropping below freezing and snow even falls from time to time. But its summer now, and we were blessed with some gorgeous sunny afternoons and a cool breeze, allthough at time clouds did sweep in and blanket the town white.

In Sapa it felt like the heat and humidity that had clung to our skin and clothes for the last 3 months had finally dropped away, and the fresh mountain air had our spirits soaring (after my fever had passed).

Travel Sapa, Vietnam

Our hotel was more akin to a mountain chalet, with open fireplaces in each room and wood paneling. The landing in front of our room overlooked the huge valley and distant peaks, but a box of kittens living in the woodshed behind our room was of far more interest to Asha, who was constantly sneaking out to check on them and win the trust of the mother. “She trusts me, I am one of them now”

Apart from gazing at the view and watching endless activity going on in the terraced fields and paddies below and above us, the only real activities we did in Sapa were trekking (well, walking really, but trekking sounds way better) to Cat Cat Village, and doing a Vietnamese cooking course.

The trekking Sapa took a few hours, and it was great to get out and into the countryside, to walk through villages and fields and see people going about their day to day. The return journey however was a bit more difficult, as it didn’t seem to register on the first leg that the return would be all uphill, and all steep. But some strenuous exercise, lungfuls of cool mountain air and a much needed release of endorphins had us pretty content that afternoon, and watching the hawks win in the late afternoon .

Friday, July 25, 2014

The best thing about travelling Vietnam

By Asha and Ryan
Back in Melbourne, we were always big fans of Vietnamese rolls, whether it was vietnam roast chicken rolls with pockets of eye-watering chillies from Jenny’s Hot Breads in Camberwell, pate-filled deliciousness from Johnston street, pork meatball rolls from that joint near Barkly square or bbq pork from Sunny’s on Smith St.  All super fresh, with crunchy baguettes and delicious fillings – and usually costing less than $3.

Well, Vietnam did not let us down, especially in Ho Chi Minh (or Saigon, or whatever) which seemed to be the capital for vietnamese rolls (called Banh Mi).  The rolls are often sold from street vendors, but it is best to get them straight from the bakery itself.

Banh Mi Vietnam

Banh my Vietnam

Our typical Banh Mi experience was this:  a fresh, crusty rolled, cut and spread with a lard/butter/something yellow, and then spread with pate, stuffed with three different types of pork meat (yay for mystery meats), along with pickled carrot and other vegetables, chilli, coriander, chilli sauce and a dash of fish sauce.  That normally costs around 10,000 dong (50 cents).

I think its silly to judge a food culture by what its very best dishes are – i think you need to look at the quality of the everyday, easily available street food because that is the real food culture, and in this regard Vietnam was amazing.

Roll your own fresh spring rolls

fresh sring roll Vietnam

Fried spring rolls are great, but good fresh spring rolls are even better.  And having all of the ingredients brought to the table so you can add whatever you want and roll it up – well, you just made Asha’s day.  Fresh spring rolls – in particular some we had in Hanoi – are just amazing.  Take a piece of rice paper, add some beef pan-fried in lemongrass, vermicelli noodles, pineapple (yep pineapple – it was a revelation), lettuce, vietnamese mint, chilli and heaps of other unnamed herbs and roll tightly. Dip into a sweet, fishy dipping sauce and put that glorious thing in your mouth!

Cheap Beer (Seriously, freakishly cheap) 

Beer IVietnam

Cans and bottles of beer in Vietnam are cheap enough, but draught beer (beer on tap) is ridiculously so. Even at some tourist restaurants you  can get a large glass of cold draught beer for 3000 dong (thats about 15 cents).  And the beers aren’t bad – sure, the gas coming of the 15 cent a glass stuff might have a eggy scent to it – but you get over that.

Our favourite Vietnamese beers included the super cheap Saigon (Asha favourite), Bia Ha Noi (which I was warned by a fellow traveller had given him the squirts, “i think they use dodgy water” he said, but i had no troubles with it), Larue – actually there seemed to be a beer named after each significant place in the country.  Its hot, its humid – the conditions where light tasting beers like these do there best work.

We were also surprised at Vietnam’s drinking culture – or that there was one.  But at 5pm on a friday afternoon in Hanoi, its amazing to see hundreds of people sitting on impossibly tiny plastic stools on corners around the old town drinking cold beers and having very loud conversations.

We’d heard our fair share of Vietnam horror stories before we’d even arrived. Tales of complex taxi scams, dodgy hotels, drive-by bag snatching, toddlers picking your pockets etc etc. Although we were a little intimidated by all the stories, we were determined not to be taken advantage of (much). In my opinion things weren’t nearly as bad as people say they are. Either that or we may have just been lucky. That being said we took the usual precautions: My bag was practically stapled and duct taped to my body at all times, we always took legit taxis and monitored the meters with our hawk eyes and generally avoided flashing our fat stacks of cash around for all to see. All in all we came away from Vietnam completely unscathed (or that we know of).

Hotel quality and level of service
Vietnam is light years ahead of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos when it comes to hospitality.  So often on this trip asking a question at reception has been met with confused looks or half-hearted responses.  In Vietnam it was hard to head out the door without first being made to debrief the hotel staff on what we were doing, so they could show us the best way to get there, give us tips on what to see, and make sure we had a map and knew to watch out for bag-snatchers.  So many times the staff would go out of there way to help us with our travel plans (at one hotel, the doorman rode his motorbike behind our taxi to the train station, organised our tickets, and then took our bags onto the train to make sure we got into the correct cabin).  Its great to return to your hotel at the end of the day to find two smiling staff members in reception who seem genuinely pumped that you have returned, with beaming smiles and plenty of questions about your day.

Added to this was the quality of the hotels.  We have spent on average $20 a night on accommodation between us, and in Vietnam this gets you a much nicer room than in Laos or Thailand.  Everywhere we stayed was great.


Coffee Vietnam

The coffee in Vietnam is not for the faint hearted. It’s thick, black, strong and very caffeinated. And we love it.Coffee is made using individual metal filters placed over the cup. The ground coffee and water is placed in the top and the coffee slowly drips through (see more here via this sassy video). If you like your coffee with milk, the Vietnamese will throw in a generous dollop or two of condensed milk, which is probably the only substance that’s able to penetrate the concentrated coffee sludge. The bean itself has a distinctive vanilla smell to it that you really can taste in the finish product.Thats it really – we loved travelling Vietnam.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A real exploration of Vietnam by motorbike

By Phil D
I was meant to travel Vietnam a lot earlier, right after my Cambodia trip, but a rather spontaneous change of my itinerary forced me to postpone this adventure by more than three months. Having finally booked my ticket to Hanoi and a rough outline of places to visit in my head, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. A good amount of fellow travelers told me a lot of good things about the country. Others said that they didn’t like the people and their attitude and that the country has already become too touristy. By that time I had already been to 7 other countries and I was worried that Vietnam would just not be able to fascinate me anymore. Luckily I was very wrong and it turned out to be a great trip, with all kinds of different adventures, beautiful places and memorable encounters with the locals.

Temple litureature Vietnam

For many, arriving in Hanoi is sort of a huge culture shock. It is loud, it is busy and it can be quiet dirty at times. I wasn’t too overwhelmed and actually got to like it pretty much right away. It’s a very dynamic city, the street food is marvelous and, contrary to what I have heard before, I found the locals very friendly. What I found very striking and what accompanied me as we traveled across the country was Vietnam’s ambivalent relation to the past and present. On the one hand the country’s history plays a very important role and sometimes seems to even dominate its society. The colonial times, the Vietnam War but also all of the ancient history – in an abstract way it is something that is ever-present wherever you go. On the other hand you will see a country that is on the move, values change, a new middle-class is emerging and the young people want to advance, leave things behind and move forward. In Hanoi this interesting mix became most evident.

Motorbike Vietnam

So what about the tourism in Vietnam? It is said that Vietnam is the touristiest Southeast Asian country just after Thailand. It is true that these days the country gets a huge influx of tourists of all kinds – backpackers as well as all inclusive tours from Europe, the US and China. But there are still ways to dodge the crowds. Our motorbike trip across the mountains of Ha Giang was a perfect example for this. It is a bit out of the way, it takes some time, it might be inconvenient for some but for us the adventure we got in exchange was more than rewarding. Beautiful scenery, authentic hill tribes and yet not a lot of tourists made it one of the best trips of my entire journey.

At the same time, things can become very touristy. Good examples would be the tours of Halong Bay (which I did but did not even cover here), in my opinion one of the most overrated things ever, the still picturesque Hoi An and beach getaways like Nha Trang. I guess it depends what you are after and how you define a great holiday. The good thing about Vietnam is, that it offers a little bit of everything.

Motorbike Northern Vietnam

One thing is for sure though; Vietnam is the perfect country to be explored by motorbike. As most of you might know by now, it is my preferred type of transport anyhow. But Vietnam offers a great variety of exciting and interesting motorbike tours. At first my plan was to buy a bike in Hanoi and then drive down all the way to Saigon to sell it. But I soon realized that, in order to travel without time pressure, this endeavor would take more than a month. Some people do it in 2-3 weeks but I think besides the riding and a severe butt pain at the end, a trip like that wouldn’t be that enjoyable. I opted for renting here and there, either for day trips or extended road trips. Looking back at it, this was the best decision and enabled us to make the most out of the 4 weeks we had. I can recommend doing the Ha Giang loop in the North, going from Hue to Hoi and via Danang and day tours in Dalat or the Mekong Delta. Every one of these trips was worth it and with an average price of about 5-7 USD per day for a bike, it’s affordable as well.

I was positively surprised by the Vietnamese people as I heard a few bad stories before. Everyone was friendly and helpful and we had some great encounters with the locals. They can be very straight forward and they do let it show if they are not content with something. But once you learn how to interpret this, everything is fine. What I found frustrating at times was the fact that you had to haggle for literally everything. Transport, goods and sometimes even a bottle of water. To a certain degree this can be found in all of Southeast Asia and it’s normal but here it was a little too much. It seemed like people perceive Western tourists as moneybags and always try to extract the biggest amount of money as possible. As I later learned, this as well has its roots in former governmental policies and is only slowly changing. At the end of my trip the constant haggling and the abstract feeling of being overcharged just became very tiring.

I finished my journey in the Mekong Delta which somehow felt like coming home or the end of an important part of my trip. I had followed this “Mother of Waters” all the way down from Thailand, through Laos and Cambodia before making it here, where the stream empties into the South China Sea. The river had accompanied me for a long time and it made for some great memories along its banks. As different as the countries are the Mekong flows through, as different are the many faces of the river itself. From a slow and lazy stream to wild and roaring waterfalls and finally branching out into a network of small distributaries – the Mekong represents the many facets of South East Asia and I am sure that one day I will explore its origins in China and Tibet.