Monday, December 31, 2012

Halong Bay, Cat Ba Island, and Monkey Island

Halong Bay is a must-see in Vietnam, and everyone knows it. So it’s a busy place. And the only way to get here from Hanoi is by doing a package tour. We’re skeptical of the Package Tour, but this one worked out very well, and though it was beyond our budget, it was worth it.

As soon as you get close to Halong Harbour, the trademark limestone peaks start to appear majestic and ghostly in the distant haze. And from the harbor they form a series of walls, ringing the bay, and you just can’t wait to get out among them. As you move toward them, individual peaks and lumps and mountains become distinct from the wall, and you begin to make out their individual forms and features until they’re looming in front of you, dwarfing the boats at their base. You glide past the silent sentinels, and marvel at such a magnificent result of geological evolution.

We also visited Cat Ba National Park on Cat Ba Island and the views from the fire tower show what Halong Bay might look like without the water. We also stopped briefly at Monkey Island to watch some macaque antics and admire the views from the highest point on the small island, though I have to say I aborted the climb just before I reached the top – climbing over the jagged, razor sharp edges of the limestone was just too scary!

We’ve been eating our money’s worth on the tour, and each meal is a veritable feast compared to the simple and cheap meals we’ve been having! At least one dish at each meal is a phenomenal artwork of fruit and vegetable carving – I’ve never eaten a rose-shaped carrot before!

Waiting to board our junk. (That's what they call the boats!)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Sapa. Hello Moto!

To maximize what looked to be another good weather day, we rented a scooter and rode the 12km out of town to Silver Waterfall. Having not much flow this time of year, the waterfall itself was underwhelming, but the occasionally revealed mountain peaks were plenty to ogle at. We continued on another couple of kilometers to the mountain pass at the provincial border, and had the most incredible view of Fansipan (the highest peak in Vietnam) and the neighbouring valley which had a phenomenal cloud glacier slowly drifting through it.

As we passed back through Sapa on our way to the villages on the other side of the mountain, we happened upon a track where some young people were learning to ride motorbikes, so I joined them and took a few laps. So much fun! But not nearly as easy to balance with Mark on the back, yikes!

While driving the steep and narrow roads in the next valley, we had pulled off to the side to let a few giganto buses duke it out for the single lane, and when one appeared to get stuck in the mud, I went forward on foot to investigate, and seeing what appeared to be a stuck bus going nowhere, I motioned for Mark to come forward, just as said bus revved into gear as it was pushed from the mud, and Mark had to back peddle like crazy to get out of the way... Sorry about that, sweets!

In one of the villages we had (yet another) awkward encounter whereby upon disembarking from the moto I was forcefully escorted (ie. "kidnapped") to the house of one of the women who then wanted to ply us with rice wine and sell us stuff. We respectfully declined the wine and goods. But it was awwwwkward...

In the late afternoon we took a minibus from Sapa to Lao Cai, to take the night train back to Hanoi, and were put on an earlier night train, which left at 7:30 pm, and arrived in Hanoi at 4:30 am or so… uuuuuugh. The hotel we had stayed at in Hanoi was very gracious and had told us to come back when we got back from Sapa, even though it was going to be so early, and they let us crash in the dining room, where I tried (unsuccessfully) to make a bed from a few chairs, before we were picked up at 8 am for the 4-hour bus-ride to Halong Bay…

*A note about night trains (and transportation in general): it’s a delicate balance between hydration and needing to use the facilities which may or may not be available because (a) the bus/train is not equipped, or (b) if equipped, may be… unpleasant. And if equipped and sufficiently pleasant, they will most certainly not have toilet paper, may or may not have running water, and highly unlikely to have soap, so, BYOTP.

These mountains were huge! It's frustrating how small they look in the photo, but really, they're huge!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Sapa. They didn’t lie! There are mountains!

We awoke to the same thick, obscuring cloud as the previous day, but decided to go on our big hike anyway, because presumably we’d be able to get below the clouds at least, like we did yesterday. So off we went, and as we were leaving town, we managed to make our way through the gauntlet of village women hawking wares, but we noticed two girls starting to follow us. They kept this up for at least two kilometers, not saying anything, but stopping when I stopped to take a photo, and giggling, then picking up the chase again when we started. (It kind of reminded me of that ghost from Super Mario Bros.) We thought they’d drop off when we left Sapa, but they kept on, and it wasn’t until a good half hour later that they started to initiate conversation with the standard (“soft sell”) questions (where are you from, what’s your name, how long are you in Sapa, etc).

We chatted casually off and on, and it became clear that we were going to be accompanied for the duration of our hike, whether we wanted to or not. So when they asked us where we were going, we showed them the route we were following on our map, and attempted to make it clear that we wanted to do the hike on our own. Yet after a little while, our determined shadows were no longer our shadows, and through some sort of persistence or sleight of hand became our guides. And we found ourselves following Mai and Vu (aged 10 and 8) for hours, over hills, across rivers, through rice fields and villages, on paths we never would have found on our own. Mai wore plastic flip-flops that were nearly torn in half, and I had my sturdy hikers on, but guess who slipped down a slope and got mud all over the back of her pants? Mm-hmm. Yup. I did.

As we hiked, the cloud ceiling lifted, revealing more of the steep mountainsides, and through occasional windows in the upper clouds we caught tantalizing glimpses of the mountain peaks, hanging impossibly high in the sky. And around every corner we had a new glorious view of the terraced slopes.

Mai and Vu concluded our hike at a fairly touristy village where all the tour buses go (giving us a convenient way back into town); and all they wanted for their time was for us to buy some of their handcrafts. As they laid out their wares, other village women nearby swooped in and tried to get us to buy their stuff instead, but after 5 hours and 12 km of hiking with us, Mai and Vu had earned our loyalty. So we bought a couple of hand-embroidered bags. An interesting day for sure!

When we came back to Sapa, the clouds had lifted so we sat on the patio outside our room read, doing some yoga, and just watching the clouds sweep up the valley, alternately obscuring the town and shifting past to reveal the extraordinary heights of the mountains. It was absolutely mesmerizing watching the tendrils and wisps of cloud shift and dance. And quite something to experience the quick and drastic temperature swing from being in the sun to being inside of a cloud. Just awesome.


Holes in the upper clouds revealing the mountain tops!

Getting below the clouds.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sapa. In the clouds.

We arrived on the overnight train from Hanoi, bleary eyed and tired, to a pre-dawn and foggy Lao Cai. We found two spots on one of the many mini buses headed to Sapa, and over the next hour as we wound up the mountain roads higher and higher, the sky brightened, but the fog, or clouds, got thicker. To the point where when we arrived in Sapa, we could barely see the other side of the street. And people were right, it was cold in Sapa. Much colder than Hanoi (I pretty much wore all of my clothes for the following three days). Had a quick breakfast at the hotel, and then crashed in our room (which didn’t have heat, but did have an electric blanket!) for a good nap.

The wall of white was still there to greet us when we got up, but we decided to go for a hike anyway. There are many minority villages within hiking distance of Sapa, so we set off for the H’mong village of Cat Cat. As the road switch-backed down into the valley, lush green slopes and terraced rice fields were slowly revealed as we got below the clouds. Walking through the village you could see how they managed the water flow through a series of bamboo conduits and aqueducts, to channel it to the rice terraces and also water-powered grain pounders.

When we got to the bottom of the valley we saw a magnificent waterfall, and unexpectedly saw a bit of a cockfight that was happening on the shore upstream. As we passed I noticed, that between matches, each guy took his rooster off to the side and gently poured water over their heads, the same way a boxer’s coach might. It was a surprisingly tender moment amid a generally grotesque scene.

On the steep path leading back to the village, we had many moto-ride offers, but we turned them all down to hoof it all the way back up, back into the clouds.

Glorious mountain view, incognito...

Cloudy Sapa

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Honk if you love Hanoi!

I’m at a loss to come up with new adjectives to describe Hanoi, having already used the words chaotic and intense to describe Bangkok. So how about some new qualifiers? Hanoi is more chaotic and more intense than Bangkok. But it’s charming too, with it’s maze of alleyways and French colonial architecture. But after almost a week, the maze continues to confound my sense of direction, and I am finding myself continually turned around! (I blame it on the lack of sun to help guide me.)

The old quarter originally had a street dedicated to each of the 36 guilds. The guilds may be gone, but categories of stores are still lumped together. You’ll see six or more stores in a row selling the same thing. There’s toy street, root vegetable street, shoe street, ladder street, caged bird street (didn't so much like that one...), tape and adhesive street, mannequin street, buttons and zipper street (aka notion street), and aquarium street, to name just a few. Also, you know you’re in the old quarter when you have to walk in the street, as the sidewalks are impeded with overflow goods from stores, food stalls selling tasty and cheap pho and banh mi and bun cha, and otherwise crowded with parked (or moving) motorbikes.

On Christmas Eve our hotel invited us to a party they were hosting at their sister location. Upon arrival, the hotel owner, Chin, poured us each a mugful of straight vodka and showed us and some other guests how to do a proper cheers in Vietnamese; and later, Chin tried with mixed success to turn the evening into a dance party. But it was a great evening of snacking and chatting with other travelers and discussing the various ways that led us to all be in Hanoi for Christmas.

On Christmas Day we went to the Water Puppet Theatre, which was really fascinating, and later, while we were sitting by the lake, a group of about 8 university students came up to us to interview us for a school project. They took turns nervously asking us the same few questions (where are you from? Do you like Hanoi? Where are you going after Hanoi?) and giggling; it was very cute. Then we asked them some questions, and chatted with them for about 20 minutes. Before they left, they asked us if we would sing a Christmas song, so we asked if they knew any, and they knew “we wish you a Merry Christmas” so we all sang that! It was all very random, but a lot of fun.

Not a bad way to spend Christmas, but it just doesn’t compare to what we missed at home. We miss you guys! xo

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Close calls and near misses: traffic flow in Hanoi

It has all the ingredients for a multi-moto-mashup: pedestrians, bicycles, swarms of scooters, cars, taxis, and minibuses; weaving in and around each other from all directions and going different speeds, intersections without traffic lights, scooters strapped with impossibly huge loads (boxes and boxes of wares, dozens of eggs, families of four, gigantic rolls of foam), and yet there is an amazingly collaborative magic that keeps traffic flowing without incident.

First of all, there doesn't seem to be the road-rage inclined egos that we have at home, where everyone thinks their time and entitlement to road space is more important than someone else's. Here, there seems to be a consensus by necessity that everyone will get where they're going, so speeds are adjusted, concessions are made, directions are changed, and it all flows like water.

Drivers are extremely deft and alert to be able to maneuver so quickly to the changing situations. Crossing the street is an act of faith, and it is as people said it would be: just pick a line, and go. Don't step into anyone whose going too fast, but if you wait for a break, you'll be waiting for a long time. So just go, and trust/hope that they will go around you. The whole look-both-ways-before-crossing-the-street, applies here in the sense of look, and then go anyway. (Sorry mom). But so far, so good.

The near-constant honking of horns led us to come up with a game where we see how high we can count between them. It generally goes something like this: beep!, HONK, beeep, one, BIP!, one, hooooonk, honk!, onetwothre----BEEEP!, beepbeephonkbeep!, onetwothreefour, HONK!, honkBEEP, and so on... The highest I've ever gotten is eight. To us it's all just white noise, but the horns seem to be a signalling system alerting other drivers of each other's presence. Or maybe they're just saying hi. It's hard to interpret.

But oh my, it's mesmerizing to watch.

Mark took this video yesterday, on Christmas Day, so traffic's actually a bit lighter than usual...

Friday, December 21, 2012

I've seen the end of the world...

And it looks like this!


GAAAH! Phra Rahou is eating the moon!

AHHH! Some multi-armed, furry-bearded cat-man is pinning down another guy and it looks uncomfortable!

Though I thought there'd be more magma, and the earth-splitting in two... I guess our visit to Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park) was not as prophetic as it appeared to be. We waited for the axe to fall all day, but these freaky and awesome sculptures were as close as we got.

But first a note about getting there. The Banana Pancake Trail is littered with backpack-toting, Lonely-Planet-thumping numskulls, of which I am most certainly one. When the 14 bus from Vientiane stopped at a bus station partway to Buddha Park, it emptied of all but 8 tourists and a handful of locals. The bus sat for 10 minutes, before a guy got on, did a quick head count, and said "no Buddha Park." After which ensued a confused conversation where we tried to get to the bottom of this increasingly suspicious situation. But our Lonely Planets all say that the 14 goes all the way to Buddha Park!, the eight of us cried. "Bus go Vientiane, no Buddha Park." So you're telling us that these people who got on with us in Vientiane, are just going right back? "You take other bus. Wait 5 minute other bus." And how much will that be? "2,000 kip." But we've already paid for this bus to take us there! So we waited 5 minutes, and there was no other bus, but there were lots of very helpful tuk-tuk drivers. "5,000 kip each go right now Buddha Park." No way! 2,000! "Noooo, 5,000. Go right now." And back and forth it went, the 8 of us holding out, until finally we said Ok, 5,000 each. To which he replied "no, 15,000 each." Whaaa?

But enough about that, we got there, the Banana Pancake Trail got a little more trodden, and we got to see some seriously awesome Hindu and Buddhist statues, and: the world didn't end. Big picture, right? Mr Ear-Kim-Ou with his madam.

Our new friend, Daow, single, and looking for love. Ladies? He's really nice!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Two-wheeled freedom

Another great way to get out into the countryside around Vang Vieng, other than by bike or tube, is to rent a scooter! It looked way more complicated than I thought, so I'm glad Mark took the reins on this one. We rode about 6 km east of town to Yui falls, which had a few beautiful pools to swim in. We soaked in the sun-dappled turquoise pool, and marveled at the tangle of tree roots on the rock beside the falls, where butterflies were flitting about. It was pretty idyllic!

We continued on around the road that looped back into town, where the hills and valleys of the jungle were infused with dusty, late afternoon sun, and each corner revealed a new and more magnificent view than the last. And like before when we were biking, children screamed 'sabaideeee!' as we passed through their village, and we would holler it back and wave enthusiastically.

We came around one corner and came face to face with a large tractor whose driver was struggling to get it up the loose gravel slope, and another man pushing it from the back. So we jumped off the bike and helped them push it up, and as I was getting back on the scooter I backed right up into the blazing hot muffler and burned my leg. The very same muffler I had asked earlier hey, isn't there some part of the bike that gets really really hot and you shouldn't touch it? Yeah. That part. Another man riding by paused briefly as I yelped, and I just pointed to the muffler in explanation and he carried on. But then he came back and after some confused gesturing he showed me how to put motor oil on it, I guess to keep it moist until I could tend to it properly? Anyway, I thought that was really nice of him to come back just to show me that.

Despite the burn it was a super day, and a great last day of our five in Vang Vieng, before heading to the capital, Vientiane.

The main street of Vang Vieng

Lots of these little guys around. Is is a snake? Is it a lizard? It's a snizard! It's a linake!

Looking straight up at the water falling down

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

When in Vang Vieng...

THE thing to do in Vang Vieng is tubing. Or at least it was. I mean, it still is. You can still rent the tube, but all the crazy ziplines and swings and drinking games en route are no more. Turns out, drinking and tubing? Not actually a good combo. So the river is, once again, just a river. We spotted only two locals on the shore shouting "Beer Lao!" as we passed, but otherwise you have to BYOB if you absolutely can't tube without a drink. Or, you can just take in the intoxicating scenery as you float along the Nam Song river, and save the Beer Lao for dry land.

Right beside where you return the tubes is the most adorable, rolliest, polliest puppy I have ever seen.
His name is Kino, and he likes to play and lick toes.