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Vietnam Day 6

An introduction to Sapa


Our overnight train terminates in the town of Lao Cai on the Chinese border. From there backpackers will get on one of the many minibuses waiting outside. It is about an hour's journey through the mountains to Sapa. There is the usual chaos of drivers touting for hire and tourists attempting to navigate their way through. It is 05:00 am and our 'scam antenna' is turned off. We are led by one agent to an empty coach and after some negotiation, overcharged for the journey. Shortly after, he transfers us to a packed minibus that 'is leaving now'. It turns out nobody on this bus has paid, and the fee is much more reasonable. We don't pay a second time. The sums involved are not significant by Western standards but the experience leaves a sad taste in the mouth. As an affluent tourist in a poor country I'm entitled to be ripped off, but some ways are more acceptable than others. I've noticed my Panama hat encourages this sort of thing.


In Sapa our minibus deposits its fresh load of tourists in the main square. We have to find our own way to the hotel surrounded by a host of cheerful H'mong tribeswomen in traditional dress trying to sell us handmade items and postcards. This is going to be the way things are for the next three days. Our rooms are not ready so we make the 3 kilometre trip (allegedly) to the Black H'mong village of Cat Cat. It is all down hill. Sapa is at the top of a mountain, Cat Cat on the valley floor. All trekking in the region is licensed. You have to be accompanied by a local guide and pay an entry fee. The trip to Cat Cat is an exception; you pay to go but do not require a guide.


The mountains around us are heavily terraced for rice growing, the results of thousands of years' efforts to scratch a living from the landscape. The winding path to the village is beset with numerous open-fronted huts where village women sell crafts. "Hello. What's your name? Where you from? How old are you? You have brothers and sisters? You buy something from me?" It is a litany we are going to learn well, especially the last phrase. We are passed by farm labourers, men and women ascending and descending the hill making their way to the rice terraces. Some carry wicker baskets on their backs filled with building rubble. Life is hard here. Pigs and dogs forage and children play on the path. On our way down we pass several primitive bamboo mills, water-driven tools for grinding rice.







At the valley floor we cross Cai Si footbridge to what is signposted as the "Mong's house of culture performance", a one hundred-years-old hydroelectric hall built by the French and still operational. It is doubles as a theatre for traditional dances: performances every hour, every day. While we wait, we watch people photograph each other by the nearby Tien Sa waterfall.



The performances are naive and charming. The performers are young, the girls smiling, the boys reluctant, moody and awckward. Their expressions say, "this is no work for the sons of H'mong farmers".






The walk back to the hotel is killing. It's like climbing Snowdon. Monica clambers ahead like a mountain goat, pausing occasionally for me to catch up. Is this medically wise for a man of my years? I must check my medical insurance. The hotel, including our room, which has a verandah, provides spectacular views of the Hoang Lien Mountains with Fan Si Pan, the highest mountain in Vietnam, prominent.


After lunch, we walk around the lake in the centre of Sapa, one of the few things not balanced on a hillside. Revived, we head for gardens in the Hamrong Mountain resort. The clue is in the name, it is all uphill - just what I need, more mountain climbing. The formal gardens are divided into different aspects: the European, the Chinese, the Rock, the Childrens' Garden, and so on. There is a fine view of Sapa from this height. In the centre there is entertainment provided by more traditional dancers. This troupe execute the same dances we witnessed earlier in the day but with more polish. These boys don't seem so reluctant to be there.






As we leave the Gardens, I purchase an embroidered Vietnamese cap from a sad looking ten-year-old with a collection laid out on a carpet before her. Few of the caps fit my big head, and trying them on amuses a group of locals who think I'm part of the entertainment. Their laughter, and Monica's, shakes my confidence and I wonder if I'll ever wear the cap in Cardiff.


We retire early after an evening meal in the Sapa Gardens Boutique Hotel - ranked first on Trip Advisor. In true Vietnamese fashion, several nearby restaurants have adopted this name or variants of it in an attempt to siphon off some its custom. A scam of sorts, but an acceptable one.

Posted by mikemonica 18:12 Comments (1)

Vietnam Day 5

Monica and Mike take the train, again

Amazing. The sun has appeared. It's our first day of summer here and we mark the occasion by wandering around the narrow streets of old Hanoi. It is hot and humid and more people are wearing masks because of the heightened pollution. Each of the 36 streets in this Old Quarter used to specialise in a single product or activity: shoe making, jewelry, pots and pans repair. And to some degree that is still how they organise things. We are looking for appropriate footwear for our Sapa trip in a street of shoe shops. We'll likely be trecking in the mountains and the weather is unreliable. I buy a pair of Addidas trainers (made in Vietnam). They are a bargain but are they the real thing? Again, we see all human activity in the streets: selling, eating, hair cutting.






We visit the remaining part of Hoa Lo prison (Maison Centrale - it was built by the French). Most of it has been redeveloped but a large wing remains as a museum. It is famous in the West for being where American POWs like John McCain were kept during the Vietnam War. They called it the Hanoi Hilton. However, this is not how it is remembered here. The place is a shrine to the Vietnamese liberation fighters who were imprisoned here during the long struggle with the French. The cells, the stocks, the instruments of torture, and the guillotine all testify to Colonial brutality. On the walls there are photos of the survivors and those who perished. The 'American section' shows the airmen playing volleyball, opening food parcels from home and generally enjoying themselves. It also shows videos of the destruction wrought on Hanoi by the B52s. Hanoi railway station was destroyed, now rebuit. We're going there later tonight.




The warm weather has brought everyone out to Hoan Kiem lake in central Hanoi. The place is alive with wedding couples, toddlers, and old people engaged in t'ai chi. Monica is in her element.





Tonight we are travelling to Lao Cai in a LLivitrans sleeper - all tourist-class sleeping cars are privately owned and managed by different companies. The company has arranged a taxi to take us to Hanoi station. Our cases are a bit of a squeeze but the driver manages it, just. Unfortunately, when we get to the station he finds he is unable to open the boot, The electronic mechanism fails; the key won't turn. A small amused crowd gathers and makes helpful suggestions. Some people lean down on the boot lid or hit it sharply with clenched fists, Nothing works. At last, it is decided drastic action is needed. The car is to be driven to one of the open air workshops specialising in locked boots. We all pile back into the vehicle: a hopeful Monica and me, and Moi, the Livitran's agent, and we speed once more through the busy Hanoi streets. The taxi parks outside a workshop that sells tyres. Its mechanic repeats the 'leaning and punching' approach, patented earlier by others. No joy. He then produces a screwdiver, manipulates it skillfully, and the boot lid springs open. We drive back to the station, boot open, in time for our train. Another example of Vietnamese improvisation.


Getting to the train itself involves navigating an obstacle course of tracks and platforms. Once on board, we share a four-berth cabin with a couple from Oslo: PJ and his Vietnamese wife Phoung who is articulate in three languages. She discourses freely while PJ roams the corridor looking for an open window to smoke through. We all retire at 12:00 - disembarcation in Lao Cai will be an early 05:00 am. Sapa is an hour's drive from there, through the mountains. PJ and Phoung's tour has organised transport for them. We'll have to make our own arrangements in the bazaar of minibus drivers when we arrive. What could possibly go wrong?

Posted by mikemonica 15:39 Comments (1)

Vietnam Day 4

The floating fishing village


After a night on the Junk we sail to a floating fishing village. Halong Bay used to have quite a few such villages but they have declined as the area has been over-fished, and as the goverment attempts to manage their activities in a UNESCO World Heritage site. The village we are going to is a consolidation of several, and is the largest such habitation in the Bay. Ha advises us that the villagers now depend as much on tourism as on their fishing. We are also told how much they love their dogs and cats -"they never eat them", says Ha. Sure enough, we see lots of dogs and a few cats stranded on their verandahs. How do they go for a walk, Monica wonders? Then we see one swimming back to the village from the island. Maybe that's the answer.


The Junk is moored in the lagoon and we transfer, in twos and threes, to bamboo coracles expertly steered by local fisherwomen who chatter to each other oblivious of their passengers. In this fashion we are maneuvered around the village. The colourful huts with their verandahs and red corrugated roofs are reminiscent of the New Zealand 'cribs' we are familiar with. Each house has a child or two playing outside. How do they manage Monica asks. They learn to swim veery early, says Ha.






There is a small school but no children. It is Sunday. The teacher is imported from the mainland. Teachers volunteer for such a tour of duty which lasts two to three years. They live among the villagers for the duration. You wonder how they manage. There is a television but only used to watch weather forecasts to conserve batteries. All fresh water and vegetables must be shipped in from the mainland. The school house has been funded by an Australian school. There is a baby sitting service next door. You can see why it might be needed.


The rain recommences. We wonder what the werather will be like in Sapa, our next destination after Hamoi. It will be very cold,says Ha. Pierre says the temperature was 30 degrees last week. Will it rain? You can count on it. It rains wherever we go. After lunch the crew is assembled formally for farewells. The captain makes a speech, and Thomas responds. Then we catch our minibus back to Hanoi. We make the traditional stop at a factory outlet selling jade, silk clothes, lacquered paintings, huge statues of lions and dragons - there are photographs on the walls outside of tourists with these purchases. You can see the artists at work on the paintings, sculptures and tapestries. Monica knows what is expected of her. She spends freely.


On our return to the hotel we are generously upgraded to a magnificent suite, and end the evening at Madam Hien's, a wonderful restaurant recommended by our Danish friends. It is in an old French colonial building unexpectedly located in a backstreet of the Old Town. The food is fantastic. We plan to go again tomorrow before we catch the night train to Sapa.


Posted by mikemonica 20:21 Comments (2)

Vietnam Day 3

First day in Halong Bay

It is 12.30 and we've arrived at the Halong Bay dock having left our hotel at 08.00. A young Vietnamese man introduces himself as our guide for the next two days. "Hello. My name is Ha", he says. "Hi", says Monica. "No. Ha" he repeats, straight-faced. I'm sure he's played this routine before. It turns out his name means 'descending', as in Halong, the descending dragon. Different inflections of Ha give it four different meanings. It's all in how you say it. We learn later that Ha is a member of one of the Vietnamese ethnic minorities. He comes from the Central Highlands, and his family still lives there. His parents only speak the local dialect, never having learned Vietnamese. As the oldest son, Ha is responsible for them now. He dons my Panama hat for a photo and looks better in it than I ever did.


The journey down was long but uneventful. We travelled through a flat landscape of flooded rice fields populated with peasants in conical bamboo hats, and water buffalo pulling plows. Planting rice is back-breaking work, and yet I'm unreasonably upset when I see the occasional farm machine in the rice paddies. It disturbs the picture postcard view of the fields. I want the picturesque scene preserved in aspic. The Vietnamese have done things this way for many hundreds of years. The road is fronted for most of its length by more modern shops and houses. It's as if there is a single street linking Hanoi with Halong city. People sit outside their houses cooking, selling things, cutting hair, repairing machinery and watching the world go by. Children returning from school ride two to a bicycle, practising road skills to be used on scooters in future years.


We're apprehensive. It has rained all morning, a heavy drizzle which reduces visibility to about 100 metres. The hills are shrouded in mist. Will we see anything? All the publicity material for the bay shows azure seas, clear blue skies, and rocky escarpments covered in lush green foliage. Today, everything is grey. I should have read the small print in our guidebook "Winter is cool and dry - rain is possible at all times of the year". In the event our fears are allayed when the rain lightens and the mist clears. We sail through countless rocky islands rising sheer from the sea. The whole scene is unreal, reminiscent of the landscape of Guilin that we saw last year, but even more stunning. Our transport is a Vietnamese Junk, all polished hardwood with both sails and engine. It tows a smaller boat, used for ferrying passengers to and from the Junk.





Our companions for the trip are Thomas and Christina, Danish documenary film makers mixing business with pleasure; and a French trio: Pierre a resident of Hanoi, sister Anna and husband Olivier both from Paris. Monica questions Pierre and discovers he rides a motor bike in Hanoi. She's horrified. "Does your mother know?" All, except us have cameras with enormous lenses, and supporting paraphernalia. Thomas and Christine are professionals, Olivier has brought a tripod. Monica expresses dissatisfaction with her Box Brownie. She was happy until now. Everyone photographs the sea scenes, the Junk and each other. The Junk has its own chef who not only provides wonderful multi-course meals but carves ornamental birds out of radishes for decoration.



The boat stops at an island where there is an opportunity to swim, kayak and visit a cave high up in the rocks. Some mad Australians from anther boat swim. Most people opt for the kayaking after seeing the cave, erstwhile home of some local fishermen and their families. They have been relocated to the mainland. It must have been a hard life. We return to the luxury of our boat.




After dinner, the evening ends with an improptu sing-song. Thomas puts the Irish to shame with word-perfect renditions of 'It's a long way to Tipperary" - Monica, the Tipperary girl, can only remember the chorus; followed by Tom Leher's "Old irish Ballad" which neither of us knows. He then proceeds to sing French chansons with an accent that is clearly the envy of the French party. In vain do they muster a couple of popular French ballads in an attempt to restore national pride. But the damage is done. My rendition of "There was an auld woman from Wexford" fails to raise spirts when I forget the last two verses. Did I say drink was taken?


Posted by mikemonica 18:05 Comments (2)

Vietnam day 2

Mike plays an away match

It's a dull misty day, ideal for visiting Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum. I consult the map: we ought to walk it in half an hour. We know it's closed on Fridays but we are undetered - we've seen embalmed Communist leaders before so we're happy to give this one a miss. The mausoleum is modelled on Lenin's tomb, right down to the podium from which the Party apparatchiks may survey the troops on May Day. Ba Dinh Square (Hanoi's Red Square equivalent) is miraculously traffic free. A soldier in a white dress uniform blows a whistle at anyone who gets too close. We take our photo and leave.


In the park west of the Square we find the One Pillar pagoda, one of the few structures remaining from the original founding of the city, circa 1049. The pagoda is supported by a concrete pillar which tends to undermine its historical authenticity. We climb the steps and pay our respects.


There are two Ho Chi Minh houses in the grounds of the Presidential Palace. Uncle Ho refused to live in the palace saying it belonged to the people. Instead he lived first in servants' quarters in the grounds, and then in a modest two room wooden building close by. We record everything of significance. Later in the afternoon I buy a propaganda poster of the esteemed leader. It seems the right thing to do.



On our way to see the Tran Quoc pagoda, we cross a small park (or large traffic island). In the centre, three middle-aged people are playing badminton. A number of courts are marked out on the tiled path. The trio has set up a net and is looking for a fourth for a game of doubles. They identify in me a kindred spirit, someone whose whole athletic demeanor has been shaped by the game: would I play? Sure I would. There are two women and a man. I'm paired with him. I notice that one of the women, who is about sixty, has restricted mobility. She has a gammy leg. The other, in her forties, looks like a more dangerous opponent; and so it proves. The old boy and I give a good account of ourselves but we are narrowly beaten. The shuttlecock is my undoing. It looks to have been in constant use since my friends learned the game. Its age and lack of feathers give it an unnatural trajectory. Sometimes it moves like a bullet, sometimes like a balloon. The other players are familiar with it - they've grown up with it after all. To salvage male honour a second game is agreed. This time we are soundly beaten. Next time I travel, I'll bring my own shuttlecock.





The Tran Quoc pagoda sits on an Island in Ho Tay (West Lake). According to our receptionist, this is the oldest edifice in Hanoi: dating from the sixth century or the tenth and it may have been rebuilt several times. It is closed when we get there. The lake is huge and with the misty atmosphere we can't see the furthermost shore. A number of hopeful anglers line the path and cast their lines into the murky water. Nobody catches anything.


We spend the afternoon walking around the French Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake. Monica is in her paparazzi mode capturing wedding couples (what's new?) as well as unsuspecting locals.







We end with a meal the Green Mango. The staff are ultra polite and friendly, moving us to a better table when it is vacated. Nothing is too much trouble for them. "God, I hope they never come to the UK", says Monica, anticipating their disillusion. We are home by nine. We have to get up early tomorrow for our trip to Halong Bay.

Posted by mikemonica 09:13 Comments (3)

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