A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Neil-Sonia

Back in Hanoi

Last Minute Shopping

rain 12 °C
View Cambodia & Vietnam 07-08 on Neil-Sonia's travel map.

We decided to have a quiet time over the last two days of the trip. Hanoi has become rather cold and we are now wearing the winter gear that we bought for Sapa. There is a lot to like about this city. An interesting sight in the early mornings around the lake here is the frenetic display of exercising put on by several hundred Hanoians as soon as they wake up. There are all sorts of power walking and gymnastics routines, complex meditation rituals, massed tai chi and dancing classes, and dozens of badminton and assorted shuttlecock based team sports. A fascinating sight is the assembly of an entire weights gym along the pavement. It appears and is used for an hour or so and then it all suddenly vanishes. There was even a really fit looking middle aged man doing a sort of martial arts thing whilst walking backwards into the traffic. Makes our daily walks through Queen's Park seem a bit on the dull side.

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The people who run the hotel that we are staying in had a family wedding today. There has been great excitement with setting up of tables and women wearing traditional dress and so on ever since we booked in. The bride appeared today and they had some sort of wedding breakfast in the middle of where the guests go to their rooms. It is a very skinny building and it was amazing to see the family continue to look after guests whilst celebrating a fairly extravagant family event. We all just wandered through and around the celebrations. We may have even appeared in some of the photos.

As the weather was fairly bad, we decided not to go on any more excursions. Hanoi is a great place to shop and eat and Sonia and I have been doing her best to further that reputation. We had to buy another extra suitcase for the flight tomorrow. We leave at around 2 in the afternoon and overnight in Kuala Lumpur before flying on to Brisbane.

Posted by Neil-Sonia 20:18 Archived in Vietnam Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Sapa

Villages and Mountain Tribes

sunny 20 °C
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Our driver picked us up and delivered us to the overnight train to Lao Cai for our visit to the Sapa area. The sleeper was a little softer than previously although we were again in a six berth compartment. So it was Sonia and I along with four Vietnamese men in varying states of respiratory decline. They were nice enough and I even had a sort of a conversation with one of them, but there was rather a lot of coughing, snorting, spluttering, snoring and wheezing as the night wore on. We were a little tired when our driver at the other end met us to take us up into the mountains to the town of Sapa.

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The sun was coming up as we arrived and the scenery was spectacular. We spent a bit of time at the tour company's office taking in the view. After this we went to the Sapa markets where we started to see the different tribes in their distinctive clothing. Many women and children started a fairly intensive marketing campaign on us and we staggered away with a bunch of handicrafts and jewelry. I have some good photos of the people in their different tribal dress that I will post on to this when I find a computer with the capacity to do so (probably back at home). Most of the people we saw in Sapa were of the Black Hmoung group who wear indigo blue outfits with cylindrical indigo blue hats. Their hands and feet are also a little on the indigo blue side as well as they spend so much time working with the dye.

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After this we met our guide for the two days. He was a delightful and bright young man named Tuan from a Black Hmoung village who was full of interesting information and spoke very good English. At 9:00am we set off on the first of our treks. It had been very cold up there so we bought some winter gear in Hanoi but we struck a patch of very good weather so it was actually quite hot once we started walking. We set off from a village called Lao Chai down the mountainside into the valley. The tour company we booked with base their operations on ecological sustainability so Tuan was very conscious of us "doing the right thing" with the ethnic groups which was good. This was a Black Hmoung village and since the advent of tourism the women and children are all on a mission to sell. He told us not to buy and sometimes not to engage in conversation. It was OK for us to talk to some of them, however, and this was all a bit tricky. Groups of the women and children tag along with you on these treks. Our posse contained a mother and daughter and an old lady who we were told was 90. She didn't look a day over 89 to me and she set a cracking pace with us up hill, down dale, across stream, along thin sections dividing rice paddies, over piles of buffalo droppings, around sows feeding piglets and through bunches of goats, chickens and ducks. After about 15 kms of this and while Tuan was preparing our lunch (or smoking out of a water pipe, which he did every now and then) they hit us up to buy things. When we refused as instructed, I think they gave us a right dressing down in Hmoung. In the end, Tuan suggested that we give them a "donation for their village" so that they might stop following us. Along the way, we visited a Black Hmoung house and saw how they live. They are mainly Catholic (this surprised me) and seem to have a belief system based around this mixed with tribal taboos and "bad luck" concerns. We also saw the graves that they seem to place "wherever" in the fields and are marked by large piles of rocks. It would seem they lead a fairly harsh existence.

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We walked to a village called Tavan which is populated by the Giay ethnic minority. These groups live quite close together but seem to keep themselves separate and have different languages. Tuan obviously speaks Hmoung but was not able to understand some of the children from another group. From here we walked through a bamboo forest (very important here as it is basically the utility "build everything" material of choice) and on to the village of Giang To Chai which has Red Dao (or Zao) inhabitants. The women in this tribe wear an amazing red head arrangement adorned with coins and ornate silver decorations. If they are over "flirting age" (as Tuan described it) they have shaved eyebrows. Tuan explained that they do this because of an ancient myth where a woman poisoned her husband because an eyebrow hair fell in the soup that she had prepared for him on his return from hunting. All in all, it gives them a fascinating appearance.

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After all this walking, a car picked us up and delivered us in the early afternoon to the eco lodge. This was a beautiful place perched along the edge of a mountaintop. We had our own bungalow with a verandah that looked directly down into the valley below. It was very comfortable and a incredibly quiet and peaceful after the bustle and noise of Hanoi. We had a couple of drinks at the resort and met a nice man from San Francisco travelling with his daughter and some other Americans and Brits. It is amusing to listen to the Americans in conversation. They all seem to be loaded, splash money around in tips and always have a private guide assisting with their every move. They also are never given to the unspoken thought so you hear some interesting things coming straight from their brains to their mouths. When the conversation turned to the resourcefulness of the Vietnamese which is so apparent at every turn, one of the American men said ".... who in the hell decided it was a good idea to have a war with these guys ...". Summed it all up quite nicely, I think.

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We had a good meal and a very relaxing night at the lodge before heading off on the second days trekking. This took us from a village called Su Pan down the mountainside to a Tay village called Ban Ho. On the way down we stumbled upon a group of Zao men slaughtering a goat which was a bit of a surprise (I think the goat was also a little surprised). The walk was fairly hard going and we crossed suspension bridges and scaled down some fairly steep inclines. We visited a Zao village called Nam Toong, had some green tea and ended up clambering over boulders to get to this waterfall with a swimming hole. It was at this stage that I discovered I'm not quite as young and sprightly as I think I am and something went pop in a muscle in the back of my leg. It hurt like hell but I hobbled on and we had a swim in the icy cold water. While we were there, a Vietnamese city tourist accidentally fell in the swirling water and had to be pulled out with a rope by his taxi driver and Tuan (always a surprise in this country). This brought out an interesting story from Tuan who said that as a Black Hmoung he should not directly help people from other parts of the country as this would bring bad luck on his village. We are all supposed to "keep separate", he said, but it was OK to help "indirectly". I did notice that he kept on the end of the rope when they were pulling the guy out. I guess that was indirect enough for him not to feel spooked. Anyway, a wet and embarrassed young man from Ho Chi Minh City emerged from the water after a while.

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Tuan fashioned a stick for me out of a piece of bamboo and we soldiered on. Sonia and I were pretty knackered by the climb up the hill and the calf muscle was making it pretty tricky, but in true Gallipoli spirit we kept going all the way back up the mountainside. After stopping at a Tay house (I think) for lunch (more water pipe for Tuan) and looking through the dwelling, we continue on our rather steep way. At place where the goat was being slaughtered, a group of Zao families were finishing a feast (presumably the goat was involved in there somewhere) and three little kids were riding down the hill on a homemade scooter arrangement. It was basically three bits of wood with old wheel bearings providing the round rolling bits. I think there was also some "happy water" (rice wine) involved as there was much merriment amongst the men. Tuan said that they were making themselves sick eating raw meat and that they were celebrating a new house.

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We finally reached our driver who took us back to Sapa. After a hobble around here and some more wealth redistribution at the market, we were driven back to the train in Lao Cai. This time we had the upmarket 4 berth soft sleeper (I don't really think there is actually a Vietnamese word for "soft") which was a bit more comfortable and had lots of wood veneer and a bit of lookalike granite about the place. There was a Vietnamese couple in with us and this time the man only seemed to have a minor throat infection. They were nice though and we had a relatively peaceful night before arriving bleary eyed in Hanoi early this morning. After breakfast, we checked in to the hotel.

I think today might be a rest day after all the physical exertion and mental stimulation up in the mountains.

Posted by Neil-Sonia 09:11 Archived in Vietnam Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Hanoi

Visiting Uncle Ho

semi-overcast 25 °C
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Hanoi is a lively and very interesting city. We stayed in the Old Quarter not far from the Restored Sword Lake. The French influence is quite obvious in the design of the buildings and streets but it is a bit like Saigon with the street-crossings. After taking in some of the Old Quarter, local cuisine and lake area, we went to one of the Water Puppet shows for which the city has some fame. It was fascinating with these floating puppets being driven from behind some screens to act out a variety of scenes.

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Today we went to the Ho Chi Minh memorial complex to dutifully file past his corpse in the mausoleum, see his humble house, read of his wonderful and benevolent greatness, see his used cars (??? there is always a surprise), and so on. Uncle Ho seemed to be one hell of a guy. In addition to this, we went to the Temple of Literature and the Fine Arts Museum.

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The food here has also been great and we have tried a few of the regional specialties. The first night we went to a little restaurant that only served one dish. It was a fish arrangement cooked in front of us in a clay pot over a wood fire. It was really tasty and had the added bonus of making the ordering really easy. The second night we went to another restaurant that had about 200 items on the menu. Service in the restaurants, shops and hotels is very obliging. As I was on the hotel internet the other night, the man at the desk was sitting there practising his English by reading something from a magazine out aloud. He said, "... that is a very nice turtle-necked sweater that you have on, ... I really like your jewelry ...". I checked to see what I had on but was disappointed to see that he wasn't talking to me. Although it had shades of Manuel from Fawlty Towers about it, he was displaying a top effort for eagerness.

Tomorrow we leave for a trekking sojourn in the Sapa area up nearer to the Chinese border. We sleep on the train and are then met by a private guide to go wandering through villages, mountains, paddy fields, etc. and stay at an eco lodge. The trip was recommended to us by some Australians we met in Hoi An. It is all organised for us and we get to interact with some of the local villagers who are members of different ethnic minorities. It should be fun.

Posted by Neil-Sonia 22:59 Archived in Vietnam Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Hue

Away to Hue

semi-overcast 27 °C
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We finished up our Hoi An visit by dropping in on a private historic house that is opened to the public by its retired mathematics teacher owner. It has been in his family for six generations and it was fascinating to hear him tell his story (all be it in a sort of Vietnamese-French version of English) of living through feudal, French colonial, wartime and communist times. He said as a Maths teacher (well... Mathematics is Mathematics) he was able to continue when the south became part of the north.

After lugging all the shopping to the bus parking area, we boarded a bus to Hue. Same, same with the bus trip but this time it was danger + mountains. We managed to get ourselves to the hotel and went for a meal at a great restaurant that had a group of traditional Hue musicians playing as we dined. The next day we engaged the Madame Thu "Thu Wheels Tours" folk to put us on the back of motor scooters and take us for a spin around some of the Hue sights. We visited some fascinating Buddhist pagodas, listened to monks going through a mantra or two, visited an ancient covered bridge amongst the paddy fields, went to a tomb of one of the Nguyen emperors and generally had a good time.

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After this, we decided we might go on a boat trip on the not-so-appropriately named Perfume River. It looks quite nice from a distance and we presumed the boat would take us up past some of the sites we had visited earlier in the day. The husband and wife team on the boat took us up one of the canals to pick up and drop off their children before continuing on to show us all of the things that are definitely left out of the tourist brochures. We seemed to be cruising at about exactly the same time as all of the boat inhabitants were attending to their daily ablutions. It was really something else ... and more. The boat then seemed to putter along at an even slower pace while the lady went to work on us with the merchandising. She sold us some small embroidery and art pieces but we had to do a pretty loud NO when she got to the silks. It was not the most scenic journey but it certainly gave us an insight to some of the ongoing poverty in Vietnam. The man on the boat kept telling us in the little English that he had how "Hue was not beautiful .... Vietnam not beautiful ... they put their rubbish in the river ...". In the morning we got up early to visit the Citadel and old city area. Although this is fairly damaged, it was very interesting.

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We then took a flight to Hanoi with Vietnam Airlines. It was very luxurious and enjoyable (particularly when compared to buses, trains, etc.).

Posted by Neil-Sonia 22:15 Archived in Vietnam Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Hoi An

Tailors and Food

rain 22 °C

The travel agent in Mui Ne was rather efficient. So efficient in fact that he sold us soft sleeper tickets (4 to a compartment, slightly more upmarket) that turned out to be hard sleeper tickets (6 to a compartment, somewhat downmarket). Anyway, the trip up to Danang was quite an experience. Not a lot of sleep, but we met a great young British girl (had also purchased hard sleeper for the price of soft) and some very nice Vietnamese people. The train was very crowded, not so hygeinic and had a buffet car that reminded me of the bar on the outlaw planet in one of the Star Wars movies.

We arrived at Danang at 5:30am and shared a car with the British girl into Hoi An. This is a fascinating place with a small "old city" area that is largely intact and is restricted to general traffic (a good thing in Vietnam). We spent a day looking at historical sites (Chinese temples, old houses, Japanese bridge) and ended up at one of the town's famous tailors. There are many tailors, dressmakers and shoemakers here who are all more than keen to make a deal.

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I decided that for the first time in my life I would have a suit made. Sonia thought she would get a dress whizzed up. After several hours at the tailors, I have ended up with the suit, two pairs of pants, two shirts, two pairs of shoes and several ties. Sonia has two dresses, a silk tunic and pants set, a pair of boots and a pair of sandals. All of this was made to measure (including the shoes) and ready to pick up in 24 hours. The next purchase will be another suitcase to carry all this in.

Yesterday we went to a cooking school. I was a reluctant participant but found it something of a highlight. We started with a guided trip through the markets where we were given a lot of information about the produce and cooking utensils (we all bought a set) and were then taken by boat to this cooking school further down the river. Most of the group were Australians and we all became great mates on the boat. At the cooking school, we learnt how to make our own rice paper to make spring rolls, created an eggplant and pork dish and cooked a local pancake type of recipe. After that we ate these and other dishes before taking the boat back to Hoi An. It was really good fun and we were all able to share stories and get ideas about the next part of the trip. It was reassuring to hear that others had been ripped off by the Saigon cyclo drivers although I think we may have set some sort of a record with them. When we arrived back, we all had to rush off for second fittings at the tailors.

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Today we took a tour out to My Son which is a complex of Cham ruins a couple of hours from here. Although they were pretty much wrecked in the American War (as it is called here), they were very interesting as the Chams were the enemies of the Khmers whose wonderful art we had seen at Angkor. I sort of felt I needed to pay my respects to both sides.

Tomorrow we take a bus to Hue.

Posted by Neil-Sonia 20:36 Archived in Vietnam Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

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