Sunday, August 30, 2009

A different side of Mai Chau, Vietnam

Wander a tea tree forest the local Mong communities have been cultivating for hundreds of years.

Mai Chau valley, Vietnam

Most seasoned travelers in Vietnam already know the enchanting White Thai communities of Mai Chau Valley in Hoa Binh Province.

But in the same lush valley, a group of ethnic Mong communities have begun opening their doors to tourists in Pa Co Commune.

Boasting the same rigid mountains and rich rice fields as Lac and Pom Coong hamlets, where the White Thai have been welcoming home stays for years, Pa Co also offers a centuries’ old tea forest that’s still cultivated today.

About 73 kilometers southwest of Hanoi, Mai Chau is only reachable via one of Vietnam’s most scenic drives.

After exiting the city, the road hikes up into the green limestone mountains, revealing fresh rice paddies and fruit orchards below. In the summer, each orchard is a different color as the fruits begin to ripen.

Behind the crowded shops that flank certain parts of the road, crystal clear canals and patches of jungle shine in the distance. As you approach Mai Chau Valley, traditional stilt houses can be seen interjecting themselves between the modern homes. As the road descends into Mai Chau Town, the difference is clear: modern homes along the road, stilt houses in the valley’s rice paddies.

A little over a decade ago, Mong locals in the area still lived as nomads. But now, many have settled in Pa Co Hamlet to farm tea or enter the tea processing trade in nearby Tra Day Hamlet. Here, locals offer tourists the local specialty, Shan Tuyet tea, made from trees that have been growing in Mai Chau’s highest mountains for hundreds of years.

According to Pha, director of a local tea processing business, Pa Co Hamlet is famous for its tea trees, about which the Mong communities still tell a local legend. According to the story, the trees appeared on Pa Hang Mountain hundreds of years ago when yellow -beaked phoenixes scattered tea seeds throughout the area because they liked eating tea tree fruit. It is said that the trees in the northwestern mountains of Vietnam were their favorite. The tea trees grew incredibly fast and soon formed a forest thanks to both the superb tea-growing climate and the special seeds scattered by the phoenixes.

Pa Co’s tea forest still has more than 1,000 old trees. These days, tourists can visit Pa Co to walk through the forest and sample the Mong’s centuries’ old tea recipes.

Source: TN

Related site:

- Trek Mai Chau
- Bike Mai Chau
- Mai Chau trekking tours

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Grant Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

The first thing that I wanted to do when I got to Hanoi was leave. I ran into my man Stewart, who I had met previously in Hoi An. He had just booked a trip to Halong Bay with Active Travel Vietnam company. I ran and grabbed Oskar so we could book the trip to go along.

Halong bay is a UNESCO protected area in the East China Sea. It’s famous for the rock outcroppings that poke out of the sea and for the one hundred or so tourist junks (ours is in the middle somewhere) that float around the area.

We booked a two-day, one night tour that included meals on the boat (which were excellent), and a nice shared double room on the boat with soft beds, a hot shower and a sea view. The trip promised a hike to the top of one of the rocks, a tour of the local caves and some sea kayaking. We got all of that for $32 per person, not including drinks, but Tiger beer was only $1. I’m generally pessimistic about organized tours, but this one delivered.

Halong Bay cruises

Indochina Sails on Halong Bay

I sat on a lounge chair with my book as the boat left the shore. After ten minutes in the water, the auxiliary engine turned off. For the first time in a week, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. It was quiet. Nobody tried to sell me anything, there was no annoying music blaring in my ears and there were definitely no motorbike horns. It felt amazing.

We ate lunch on the boat and then arrived at the caves. They were huge and well-lit (thanks UNESCO). As we came around one corner, a red light shined on one of the rocks. “If you want, you can close your eyes, but if you look at it, you will see a penis and testicles,” said our guide, Han. He had a shy sense of humor about him that I really enjoyed.

Han was such a great guy. He seemed genuinely interested in our enjoyment but also in us as people. After dinner on the boat, the professionalism went down the drain. I had a long talk with him that night, which resulted in him inviting me to go spent a night with his family about 120km west of Hanoi. I had to turn it down simply because of timing issues. As I type this, I’m regretting that decision.

After the caves, we all took some stairs to the top of one of the largest rock formations. I’d post some pictures, but then it wouldn’t be as nice for you when you go, right?

At night, the eleven of us on the boat ate, drank and told jokes while enjoying whatever scenery we could see. Stewart asked Han if he had whiskey to drink, but he didn’t have any on the boat. Han got on his phone and had a quick Vietnamese conversation. “It’ll be here in 5 minutes,” he said. A row boat arrived later with a large bottle of Vietnamese whiskey and a twenty four pack of Coca-Cola. What happened after that, Nathan? I’ll tell you later.

Halong Bay cruises

Seafood flavour on Indochina Sails

I woke in the morning to Han knocking on the door, yelling, “Nathan, Oskar, time to get on your kayak!” Everybody else had already awoken and gotten in the boats. We quickly changed into some water clothes and jumped in the our shared boat, still a bit groggy. I was having a great time, as was Oskar as we paddled through water caves and into an untouched bay. Up on the cliffs, we could see monkeys jumping between the branches. Oskar got a kick out of trying to go as fast as possible, even with all kinds of other boats drifting slowly near us. I played along and occasionally ruddered from the back, knowing that he would have killed some old couple had he been alone. It was one of those manic mornings that I just love. When we got back to our junk, Han said it was time for breakfast. On the second floor of the boat, I saw pancakes with fruit and chocolate sauce. Yum. But I’m still feeling manic. Can’t I do something crazy? As I sat on the bottom level of the boat, I looked at Han with a mischaevious look in my eye.

“How deep is this water?” I asked.
“Very, very deep,” he responded.
“So if I, uh, fell off the top of the boat, I wouldn’t hit a rock?”
“No, no, if you can swim, no problem.”
I smiled and ran away.

Are you tired of seeing me jump off things yet? I just love doing that! After a few more jumps, I took a quick shower and ate breakfast as we returned back to the dock.
It amazes me how much a couple days away from loud cities can bring inspiration back so quickly. My manic mindset remained on the bus ride back. My mind and body were relaxed, but I was having all kinds of crazy ideas. This is what ended up in my journal, word for word.

April, that is…

There’s no word for it. It’s when the cogs that turn the gears in your brain are fully lubricated with synovial fluid. No quantity of pills, food, water, sex, beer or dong can bring it to you. It’s like somebody rang your doorbell and replaced the flaming bag of shit with a silver platter of shiny keys that open the locks on the doors you know you always had but were unable to open. Out of the doors come new thoughts that belong on paper, the pen serving as an immortal doorstop.

I just woke from a nap that I didn’t know I was taking. I wasn’t reading and I wasn’t looking out the window and I couldn’t have been doing anything else. This is a bus. I opened my eyes and came to that realization and congratulated myself. Sleep to me represents a game of 8 pin bowling. Having knocked down 7 pins last night, the past hour earned me a spare. A strike or a spare is a promise of a full day’s energy, both of body and mind while too many frames with pins left standing brings lethargy and failing health.

After I wrote the word, “health”, our driver honked incessantly at another rice paddy and I looked up. I began to focus on who taught these people to use their horns to grab the attention of nothing and nobody. I didn’t come to a conclusion. We had returned to the outer parts of Hanoi and I capped my pen. It had disappeared into the motorbikes, smog and smoke. It’ll be back and when it arrives, you’ll know.

Nathan – bootsnAll Travelogues


Please come and experience with Indochina sails

To more information about tours in Vietnam: Halong Bay travel guide

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tay ethnic group’s charming village - Ba Be National Park, Vietnam

Located in the heart of the Ba Be National Park in northern Bac Kan province, Pac Ngoi hamlet is one of a few hamlets that still keeps to the traditions, customs and habits of the Tay ethnic group, the second largest ethnic group in Vietnam.

Pac Ngoi hamlet is home to 80 households comprising 400 people, who are mainly Tay ethnic people.

When visiting the hamlet, tourists can observe ancient houses on stilts backing onto the mountain and mirrored on Ba Be lake, and enjoy original Tay songs, including “Then” singing - a religious music from the Tay people that combines music, songs, dances, movement and the “luon”, duets of lovers.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Halong Bay - Amazing overnight cruises in Vietnam

Ha Long Bay is the leading candidate for Seven New Wonders of the World - an amazing, jaw dropping “have to see it to believe it” kind of place. And I had. Seen it. One year earlier, to be exact, while on a business trip and it amazing and my jaw did drop. I wanted S to experience the same thing and I was counting my blessings that I was going to see it again.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Normally we are on a tight, tight backpacker budget that forces us into fan cooled rooms with questionable stains on the walls, the sounds of the noisy street (or beach) keeping us awake. But for this, our one night (well, my second one night) on Ha Long Bay sleeping in a junk boat, for this we decided to splash out a bit. And what a difference that 20 extra dollars can make! The food on my trip last year had been good - a solid good. But this year…..just look.

The first course of lunch. We knew that things were looking good when this plate of humongous shrimp (I like to call’em shramp) were set down in front of us. We peeled these guys and dipped them (who am I trying to kid? I bathed mine…) in the limey, salty peppery mixture you see at the top of this page.

I will let you in on a secret. I like eating squid, octopus and cuttlefish the most when they are purple. I have no idea why. When you place a plate of pale white calamari in front of me my stomach is like “nope” but when I see a piece of tako that is the colour of concord grape juice something in my brain breaks and I become submissive to its charms.

Yes - we are still on lunch! You may recall that I am normally a vegetarian (an ass kickin’ food lovin’ one) but on this trip I decided to eat fish because frankly, I think they are dicks. The wonderful staff on this boat made us an entirely pescetarian 5-course meal. This was a lovely fish steak smothered in a sort of Vietnamese warm salsa - tomatoes, onions both spring and white, chili and of course, garlic.

Our boat was much nicer than our course backpacker senses were accustomed to. Every thing was dark wood polished to a high sheen - very posh.

We eyed the requisite karaoke machine with suspicion, knowing full well that all of the Da Lat wine and Ha Noi beer was going to loosen us up enough to give it a go. But first, a perfect simple photo of a cold towel in a little laquered basket.

I am really at my very happiest when a meal begins with a vase of jumbo shramp and some carved vegetable flowers. I want every meal to start with these things. Do not be surprised if you come to my house and I present you with a tall refreshing glass of shrimp and a carrot rosette before you’re even all the way in the door.

These were in served in a really light broth - mostly clam nectar and garlic and were very delicate and pretty, but….I have had a bad relationship with bivalves since a terrible, horrible, life changing-ly bad bout of food poisoning from mussels a few years ago. Only recently have I been able to even entertain the notion of placing a clam anywhere near my mouth - but these boys made the cut! Cautiously, mind you - I only ate about 5 and even then was terrified to go to sleep, as if they were little clam axe-murderers just waiting for me to relax and close my eyes.

For the grand finale: crab shells stuffed with crab cakes. Just when I was feeling a little riced out, a little accosted with lemongrass (I hate the stuff and am pummeled with it daily) they brought these little gems out. Now, I don’t harbor any notions that these are in any way Vietnamese other than the fact that the crab lived here, but let me tell you: I was one pinch of Old Bay Seasoning and a little pot of aioli away from sheer bliss.

I will always remember my first time to Ha Long Bay. I will remember the beauty, the eerie calm, the almost spooky way that the karts rock formations jut out from the murky sea. It was magic in the truest sense of the word.

But my second trip? I will think about those tiny limes, the plump shrimp, the delicate blush of an octopus tentacle, the meatiness of the rich crab meat.

And I’ll look you straight in the eye and tell you that the first time was more meaningful.

You’ll believe me, right?

Related site to Ha long bay

- HaLong bay kayaking tours
- Halong Bay tours