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Category Archives: Vietnam

Hanoi-Luang Prabang

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Hanoi

Last day in Hanoi was dedicated to the the Old Quarter, named also the “36 street quarter”, the old area of the city that housed the old time guilds of the city, 36 guilds in total that gave it its name. I forfeited the breakfast in the hotel and I went to a restaurant for a breakfast of fruits and a delicious shake of a mix of fruits, something that I don’t know if it can be so good in any country from the North. After that I started to walk the quarter. Each street that carries the name Hang, that means in Vietnamese “merchandise”, was the place where in the past that particular item was sold: there are streets for rope, clothes, shoes, religious items, silversmith, jewelers, blacksmiths, funerary stones, etc.

I started the tour at the Hoang Kiem lake that sits in the middle of the city and it has on in its middle an island on which is located a temple dedicated to a national hero, this being very “in” in Vietnam, the same like in China. There are many temples dedicated to kings, generals, scholars and heroes. From that temple I started to walk the guild streets that now-a-days do not sell anymore always only that merchandise but for sure it exists a concentration. I followed a tour that is recommended in the book and I reached interesting places, and several temples and pagodas located inside the quarter. The streets are charming being shaded by trees in the entire Hanoi, but unfortunately the spring mist that started in the morning became more and more annoying and was becoming a real drizzle. I kept walking, arriving at one of the old city gates and following the street on which there were selling funerary items, I got to the mysterious place where they sell the fake money, stashes of copied hundred dollar bills that they burn as offering in temples in the main kang, oven. These and many others are part of the offering for the dead part of the famous Confucian tradition of worshiping the ancestors, the core activity during the Tet festival of the Lunar New Year. From there I went for a little longer walk to get on the famous bridge over the Red River that was the main target for the American aviation during the war. It is the major artery that connects Hanoi to outside at it was bombed 8 times but repaired easily by the Vietnamese. On the bridge was a group of “short haired” Americans that were on a tour to various sites related to to the American War. They looked like Marines and their guide was talking only about sorties and how many bombs can destroy an objective. He had also the same hairdo! The bridge is impressive, apparently was built by a student of Eiffel. Currently is still a main road, being in the center of the city and is crossed by train and motorbikes. It was getting late , almost 10:00am and I had to be back at the hotel at 12:00 the latest, when the taxi for the airport was coming, so I hit directly to see Uncle Ho laying down. The drizzle from the morning became rain and I did not have anything with me for cover, even a cap, but there were 21C so was no big deal. I thought that it was easy to see Uncle Ho, but the line was impressive even in the on and off rain. I checked the luggage, because you are not allowed to enter the tomb with any kind of cameras or cellphones and I proceeded to stay in line, sometime around 30 minutes. I was able to make it because the tomb is open only 5 days a week between 8-11, and I did it right before 11:00am. I got drenched in the rain and inside was AC but the view is very short trying to accommodate so many people that came in trips to see Ho. It is better done that the tomb of Mao in Beijing because you walk around the crypt. Ho was quite a character and no matter what bad things he may have done, he will remain in history like a great figure for Vietnam. Seeing the amazing cult for ancestors the Vietnamese have, especially the ones who made a difference inn the history of the country, you realize that Ho achieved both the independence and the unification of the entire country. So any missteps, and even disasters of the communist experiment, will be easily forgotten by anybody balancing these great achievements. And all were corrected now when the country is moving ahead to a market economy of the most capitalistic nature. From Uncle Ho’s tomb, that ended symbolically my visit in Vietnam, I went thorough the unceasing drizzle to the hotel but before I stopped to a store, in the way, where I bought something the other day to get a receipt. At the hotel, I packed and repack because the whole issue about this flight was that I must have 20 kg. So I took a lot of stuff on me together with all the books and I crammed as best as I could all the stuff in one bag hoping for the best. Besides, I had another package that I bought in Dalat. I paid the hotel and took some receipts from them, chat a little with some Aussies, originally from Vietnam whom I met the day before before I left to Tam-Coc and I got in the cab that was waiting in front of the hotel. The airport is far and it took him an hour to get there but the check-in went smoothly and it turned out that my luggage barely did it, being somewhere around 19kg.

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ATR 72

After quite a wait I got in the bus that brought us to a plane that looked tiny near a Boeing 777 but it did not look so tiny latter on. It was a propeller plane, the first time I flew one of these guys, ATR 72 made in France and did pretty good in the 1:15 hour flight to Luang Prabang, the old capital of Laos. The plane had 70 seats but I guess that there were maybe 20 people in it. We landed in Luang Prabang at 4:00pm right in front of the airport building and we got out and enter the airport and I got a 15 days landing visa on the airport. For the picture they scanned the passport… I did not catch in time because if I entered on the Romanian passport would have been cheaper…..The formalities were a breeze comparing with Vietnam and I found myself outside together with 4 French people with whom I shared a taxi-van for $1 each and we got into the city right away parking in front of a guest house. Right away you realize that finally you arrived in SE Asia. Vietnam it may be located geographically in SE Asia but culture wise is more in China, the 1000 years of occupation and the new economy of the country changing aggressively their culture. The tranquility of SE Asia does not exists there, everything is a rush and a humongous cacophony of sounds and noise that make people completely immune. In Vietnam absolutely everybody who has a horn is using it fully and the entire pedestrian, animal and motor traffic does not hear it anymore, because is more than a second nature, it became the background noise, so you can press the horn behind somebody and the person does not even flinch. We were surprised that the minibus that took us to Luang Prabang does not continuously press the horn and make a big fuss! I tried one guest house where the rooms were charming but they had only for one night so I left my luggage there and after a quick search I found a similar one, with AC and beautifully shiny floors, in all houses you have to leave the shoes at the entrance. I repacked my luggage and I went in town that is small and charming, similar with Sukhotai or Chiang Mai, the Lao people being named in history Thai that creates a big controversy nowadays. The culture is similar with Thailand and does not have any relation with Vietnam. I ate in a very nice Lao restaurant TamTam Bamboo, a dish of fish, chatting with Gunther, a German from Stuttgart who works for Lufthansa and here I am at the Internet Cafe to make a phone call (in Romania nobody answered again!!!!) at home.

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2007 in Blog, Laos, Vietnam

 

Hanoi (Tam-Coc)

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Tam Coc boat landing

I woke up in the morning with the idea of posting the text about Halong Bay that I wrote last night but the internet was still not working, so I decided in the last moment to leave for the trip to Tam Coc in spite of the fact that the sunny weather predicted on weather.com did not happen. The group was very small, with two girls from Geneva and a very artsy couple from Saigon, the guy trying to talk on a slick cellphone the entire trip. The trip, that took about 2-3 hours, no matter that they say that it takes mostly 2 hours, was to Hoa Lu, the first capital of the unified independent Vietnam, unification obtained by a king in the 10th century, after he was able to get rid of the Chinese who came in the 2nd century AD and forget to leave for 1000 years. So it can be worse than with the Russians!

The unified part was just the north of the country after which they started to move south in areas occupied by Champa Empire and in the 17th century were able to absorb the entire Champa kingdom of Danang. Hoa Lu was the first capital, a citadel in those time with temples and palaces. The first king had three sons, and his beloved one, the third son, was killed by the first one out of jealousy and fear that he may lose the throne. So, at the death of the king the queen did a swift move and married the commander of the army who became in this way the king instead of the fratricide son. This second king is credited also with major victories against the Chinese and is also commemorated in Hoa Lu. The only things that remains from the old citadel are two temples dedicated to these two major kings. The temples are interesting from the historical perspective more than anything else and they are restaurated in the 17th century. But people come here even today with offers and prayers. After the visit of the two temples we boarded the bus and went to Tam Coc for a mediocre lunch and right after that we got on boats to visit this site. Tam Coc is named also “Halong Bay on land” or on the rice paddies. It has the same limestone rock formations like the ones we saw in Halong Bay and is looking closer with Yangshou, being placed on a river. The river is smaller and to visit it you board a boat that is rowed by two women, that takes you through a stupendously beautiful scenery of peaks and green rice paddies tilled by peasants.

The river crosses through some caves and the boat ride goes inside these 3 caves where you have to duck your head not to hit the ceiling. After about 1 hour you get to the end of the trip and you start touring back. The boat trip is popular both with Vietnamese and foreigners and the river is full of boats, the rowing women trying like in the entire Vietnam to sell you something else while you are a captive audience on board. We arrived at the harbor and after a short wait for the two artsy Vietnamese, we left to Hanoi, where before we reached the center of the city we slowed down to look into the dog meat market, a specialty that only in Vietnam is consumed. However, even here it looks like is eaten only by poor people and is looked down on. The market was depressing, or this was our perception not being familiar with this type of food, but probably the same would look any other meat market for a vegetarian!

Finally, we arrived in the city and right away I started to pound the streets to cover some ground before the tomorrow’s departure. I shot some video in the center and I arrived in the glitzy part of the town, where the Opera built by the French is located surrounded by the best hotels: the old Metropole now owned and managed by Sofitel and the new/old Hilton. The area around them is full of chic bars and restaurants, and there are also all the label-stores. I entered Esprit that was full of employees and no customer and one T-shirt was selling for half million dongs, same price like in the US! From there I went directly to see the Hanoi “Hilton”, the way the POWs were calling the jail of Hanoi. The person who was named the first ambassador in Vietnam in 1994 lived there for a while. The jail is still there but only a fraction of it, transformed in museum, because most of it was demolished to make space for a highrise with conference centers and luxury apartments. Times change and the place was primary real estate! I finished my tour with a visit to the St. Joseph cathedral where I stayed a little at the mass in Vietnamese and after that I went to find Cafe des Arts, a glitzy French restaurant were I wanted to eat in the last two nights in Hanoi but because I was too hungry I settled each night for a closer place to my hotel. The food was great, and the dishes were very interesting but I went for beefsteak tartar, something that rarely I eat but they boast that theirs is the best and it was!. All watered with a bottle of Halida local beer! After dinner I tried to call home but nobody answered so I gave up and now is late, and I am retyping this posting because I lost the first one, and I will go to sleep. Before going to the hotel I passed by a French pastry place and I got two great cakes and I stopped to ODC travel to pick up my plane ticket for tomorrow. It is very difficult in Vietnam to get exactly what you want because the command of the English language is very poor for the majority of the educated people. They are able to communicate but in simple lines, if you get them in subtleties they are lost and they don’t understand you at all. It turned out at the agency that the ticket is not on Vietnam Airlines but on Lao Airlines. First time they told me that is the same plane and they code-shared and latter they told me that they do have separate flights. Either I did not understand or they have no clue, and both are possible. In any case you cannot get the difference between: the same plane and the same flight! And they are completely lost in this! And this is ODC travel a pretty established agency but the employees are similar with many other agencies. The difference is made by the fact that some of them are more polite and look more professional in their neat offices. Finally I got to the hotel and I was able to post the last night post and write and rewrite this one. When I was in the middle of the first draft, Emin, the Irish guy from the Halong Bay boat, just showed up from his third day on Halong Bay (we did not know that we stayed and stay in the same hotel) and told me that the weather today was even worse then the other days, the boats were stopping and had to honk in order to keep in contact with each other because of the heavy mist.

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2007 in Blog, Vietnam

 

Halong Bay (2 days)

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Halong Bay

Halong Bay is the jewel of the crown, the best site the Vietnamese have and for good reason. It is an area close to Haiphong, a bay in the Gulf of Tonkin, where the legend said that the dragon who left the land to go into the sea , smashed the earth with his tail and broke it in many pieces, before disappearing into the sea. So the bay has many islands, somewhere around 1600, and it would take a long time to see all of them. There are trips of 1-4 days to see something and they cater to all categories of travelers on boats that sail the gulf. I left around 7:30am from the hotel, and in the bus I found an eclectic group, mainly French with some Malaysians, an American and an Irish. The bus ride to Halong City, the newly developed city that is the hub for the bay cruises, was about 4 hours with a stop in between.

We arrived at 11:30am and at 1:00pm boarded the boat and after some unexpected delays we started to cruise. The weather was not good at all, something that we understood is typical for this time of the year, especially for the month of March where a sort of continuous drizzle is hanging in the air, but is so thin that you don’t get wet on your clothes just on your hair. The immediate effect is that the visibility decreases considerably and everything floats in a kind of mist. I knew about it, a very similar weather with the one we had in Yangshuo several years ago, and the landscape is identical. The boat was pretty big, with cabins for sleep, very comfortable and, as usual in Vietnam, very clean. We cruised for an hour, with limited visibility and we arrived at some beautiful caves and got down to visit them. All sorts of legends and stories abound about these grottoes , most of them fabricated by the guides, talking about dragons, princes and princesses and their 100 children, but the bottom line is that they are very beautiful limestone caves, unfortunately packed with all the tour groups that visit them in the same time. After this short visit we got on the boat again and we cruised to a floating fishing village, floating platforms in the bay where the fishermen live, the plan being to buy fish, but in the end nobody did it. We continued to a place where they were renting kayaks but again with no clients from our side and finally we stopped on an island, from whose top the visibility was great, or as great as can be in the misty weather. The weather started to improve and in the evening it cleared out, and you could see even stars on the sky. The entire landscape is made out of rock formations that sprout out of the sea, peaks, higher and lower, with vegetation on them and you navigate through this maze enjoying the beautiful view. In spite of the bad visibility, the clouds and fog gave a more mysterious look to the place, and you had more chances to see the dragon that people repeatedly said they saw coming out of the sea. I did not see exactly the dragon, but I have to check what is on video, and maybe, maybe…Meanwhile the crew of the boat fed us, gave us the keys for the cabins, and at 5:00pm we got electricity and hot water, so we went for a quick shower. Most of the people were intrigued about my camera, usually the Westerners are more intrigued than the locals who think only that is very expensive, and we started to talk, the French, from La Rochelle, proving to be very nice, however they could not stop mentioning the Romanian gypsies who are prowling the people in France. The two dinner tables were organized by languages, the French at one table and the English speaking at the other. Again, I was impressed with the Malaysian couple, Chinese descendant, who were speaking very well English, and he told me many things about the politics in Malaysia, where the Chinese and the Indians do not have too much of a say in politics, that is controlled completely and very authoritarian by Malay. This is the third couple from Malaysia I am traveling with and I cannot say how impressed I am with their command of English and I say this in comparison with the Vietnamese, who even if they speak very well, especially the guides, it’s almost impossible to understand them and nothing that require a little more finesse in term of tenses is understood by them. In the end, I chat with Emin, from Ireland, a very nice Irish boy who did not want to go to Sapa because there were no Irish pubs and Saturday is St Patrick’s Day, a very important event for any Irish person. He told me that he watches every year the NY Irish parade broadcast in Ireland. Also, it was Aaron from Boise. ID, who was happily traveling since April last year, part time in the US and part time outside, but he was feeling that the end is near and he should come back, but it was still a chance to extend the trip to meet some friends who were going in the fall in Nepal. We had a long chat followed by a game of Switch, a card game Emin taught us and we had great fun playing, sometime late after the French and Malaysians went to bed. But the fun had to stop because at 10:30 pm the engine was supposed to be cut off and we still can enjoy everything but in the dark. Emin and Aaron went to sleep and I got on the top deck of the boat. It was magnificent!. The clouds cleared and you could see far away Halong City. We were anchored in the middle of a bay surrounded by peaks that were poking out of the water, and also surrounded by other boats that all were drifting at anchor. It was so quiet and beautiful that it took me a long time to decide to go to sleep in my cabin. It was warm and you could stay on the lounge chairs on the deck, close your eyes and feel how the boat drifts. All the boats, or most of them , had the lights off. The whole experience was magical. Finally, I decided to go to sleep, not for any other reason but I got asleep several times on the lounge chair. After a night sleep in the village followed by another in the sleeper train, here I was sleeping on a boat. I went directly to sleep and I woke up in the morning, hopefully for a better weather but the clouds were even worse than the previous day, so after we ate our breakfast we cruised back to the harbor in Halong City where we arrived at 11:00am as scheduled.

We had quite a long lunch and after some delays with the buses, during time the pearl sellers were prowling on us to purchase their wares, they succeeded to cram 21 people in a minivan and we got on our bus for the 4 hour trip to Hanoi, where we arrived at 5:30pm. Here the weather was a little better but not very different and in the evening the same drizzle came over the city. As a result I had doubts if to go tomorrow to a trip or not, but I checked the weather and tomorrow is supposed to be sunny, so I will go. Here , I had to solve several issues and the first was to see how I will get to Laos. Investigating further they told me that it may take 17-22 hours by bus and everybody gave me a different estimate, so I figured out that is not a pretty set deal and you may get stuck in customs for a long time. So I decided for a flight, that I’ve crossed it before from my options when they told me that I can have only 20 kg, but you can have more than one pack. But balancing with 22 hours, I went for the flight, and after doing a research on the Internet for the type of plane they use, ATR72 ( French) that in my mind was confused with IAR72 (Russian), I bought a direct flight to Luang Pabrang, Saturday at 3:00pm, for an one hour flight. Nobody knew what planes they fly and neither who makes them! This took a while, and after that I had to go to the store where I bought the jacket to ask them something and quickly to the Water Puppet Theater, a famous tradition in Hanoi, where by chance I was able to get a ticket for the 8:00pm show, everything else being sold out. The Puppets were very nice, the show was color full and entertaining. They have these puppets in a pool of water and they manipulate them horizontally from the back of a curtain, different that the vertical way that is in use everywhere. Stories, traditions, legends with music, etc. I was starving and from the theater I went and ate in a very nice restaurant on the shore of Hoang Kiem Lake that is in the middle of Hanoi, at the base of the Old Quarter. After dinner, it came the phone moment, unfortunately the connection was not great and, before I got to the internet in the hotel, I stopped to one of the many bootleg CD places and I bought 6-7 new CDs. Last night when I finished to write this I tried to post but the internet in the hotel died. I saved it and tried again this morning still to no avail, and I hope that now it will work.

 
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Posted by on March 16, 2007 in Blog, Vietnam

 

Cok Ly (Sapa Region)

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Cok Ly Market

The plan for the last day in the North was to go to another market in Cok Ly. I pondered upon the idea because it was an alternative to go to another market that was different, in another province, but unfortunately , it was a slow day for that market, named Bin Liu, the high market days would have been between Thu-Sun. There are many minorities in the area and it was fun to see their customs and the dress they wear. On one side of the mountain are the Flower Hmong, Liu, Tay and Dzay. On the other are the Black Hmong and the Red Dzao and in another province are the Red Hmong and the Black Dzao. Probably there are more of them but is hard to identify them, after just several days of walking in the area. I was able to see the first group in the market in Bha Ca and Cancau and the second group in the market in Sapa, so Bin Liu market would have been perfect for the third group but in the end I decided to keep with the original schedule to go to Cok Ly. We woke up at 6:00am, said good bye to our hosts and left to meet the jeep (Russian) on the road. The village was awake and the water buffaloes were roaming the alleys. We arrived at the road but no sign of jeep, Bang called and eventually woke up the tour operator who sent a jeep with one hour delay. The way to Sapa is just 17 km from the place we were and we arrived when the clouds/fog started to lift and the views over the city were marvelous. You could see the city out of fog but the fog was still lingering under the city. Great view! I had breakfast on the Bamboo restaurant and left to the Sapa market, and do the last shoppings I planned for, some things that I already saw and wanted to buy and I had to pick up the custom made blouse-coat I got for Cristina. I went again to the market, where there were not too many Red Dzao like the day before and I went to see the church and a local temple.

At 10:00 I went to the hotel, pick up the luggage, got in the jeep and we left for Cok Ly market on a road that on its last 17 km before the market, was all dust and all our luggage and our lungs got dusted to a level like I never saw since I was in Tibet. The market itself was disappointing, very small with the same minorities. Organized travel in Vietnam is OK but the agencies do not have the creativity of advising people what to see and this is an issue when you don’t know the local customs. Instead of seeing three markets on the same side of the mountain, I would have opt for another from the other side. I walked a little in the market and I settled for some roasted peanuts for lunch, forfeiting my official lunch with Bang. But still I picked up this trip because after the market it was a boat ride on Chai River that it turned out to be very nice. I was very lucky that the weather improved in the last two days, and the cold spell from the last week went away, so I did not need my newly bought Armani jacket at all. It was warm for T shirt and extremely pleasant on the boat, that was going through canyons with caves and we stopped eventually to visit a Tay village. We had tea with the people in the house, a custom here, and always when we stopped somewhere people were offering Vietnamese tea that like their coffee is strong and bitter. They showed me the upstairs of the house, the Tay house having a lower level for animals, that they partitioned and made a living room also, and a top floor for sleeping. I wanted to go to the bathroom but no matter that they showed me where the location was I could not figure it out. It was a pig style there and some other huts but nothing to resemble what I know to be a toilet. And obviously I did not expected tiled ceramic walls and toilet paper! But still I could not figure out which was the toilet! We left the village and board the boat admiring the beautiful flowers of a local tree, called rice treat, and we rode the boat for another 30 minutes till we got to the road where the jeep was waiting for us. Another cup of tea in the shade, it was already very hot, and we left for Lao Cai on a beautiful sunset, cruising around the Vietnamese shore of the Lap River that is the border with China. In Lao Cai we went directly to the Chinese border and I looked to the constructions from the other side but I could not go there because I did not have a Chinese visa and neither a return Vietnamese one. Bang showed me the market building in the Chinese city and told me that the first floor is occupied by merchants and the second and third by the “Meat market”, prostitution in China being legal, (not in Vietnam). All the girls are registered and pay taxes. Two full floors in a large building! The Vietnamese can cross the bridge anytime for a day trip and if they want to stay overnight they have to arrange for a permit. Bang said that is cheaper in China that in Vietnam, in terms of food, accommodation and transportation. The buildings in the the cities are impressive, the Vietnamese built a Commercial center, business center that looks very modern and on the Chinese side was built up pretty seriously.

From the border we left to the railway station, where I went in a hotel to change, arranged by Bamboo/Sapa, I tipped the driver and I had another discussion with Bang, who told me that he may try to immigrate to USA, the dream of any young person in Vietnam. I told him about the visa lottery, that he did not know about and we promise to keep in touch. One stop, after Bang left, was to the Internet to post my story and do the the email but the computer/network was so slow that I could not post, so I saved it, email it and posted this morning. My stomach got a little upset yesterday, not bad but enough to have some shrills, and I got on my steamed rice and water cure that works miracles, better than any fancy drug, so till this morning everything was supposed to be in order. The train was leaving at 9:15pm. I got in the compartment with a German couple from Munich with whom I chat for about an hour. Friendly! I told them that I lived in Munich a while ago and turned out that they live very close from where I used to live. We went to sleep, the same uneasy sleep of the sleeping couches, and we arrived in Hanoi at 5:30 am, took a motorbike and arrived in Camellia Hotel to wake up the host who was sleeping in the lobby. I did all my repacking, because I bought a small backpack for local travel and I had breakfast, did my posting and email and I am waiting for the bus that will take me at 7:30 am to Halong Bay, a two day trip where I will sleep, tonight, on the boat in the bay. So no Internet!

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2007 in Blog, Vietnam

 

Sapa

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Sapa

The crowd from the Trekking Cafe was very interesting: Daniella was from Australia and came in Sapa several days ago. The moment she was hitting Australia’s land she was getting bored right away so she traveled almost continuously for the last 10 years living 4 years in India. Roelf was from Amsterdam and he was the third time in Sapa. Mongolia was his preferred country of travel and in Sapa he was doing some voluntary work with the minorities who knew him very well so they invited him the next day to a wedding. Abas, or something like that, was Moroccan living in Switzerland and studying in Laussaune but mainly he was traveling and was in lots of places. I chat with them till 11:00pm when I had to leave and go to sleep. The plan was to leave in the trek early morning but I wanted to visit Sapa, so I woke up again before sunrise. The room I had was magnificent, covered in windows on two sides, like the entire hotel, The Green Bamboo. I had breakfast and I left for the market. Saturday and Sunday were market days in Sapa but still the market had plenty of Black Hmong and Red Dzao who were pounding the streets. I got inside the market where the local people sell and the view was fascinating with lots of materials embroidered and beautifully decorated dress, like I did not have a chance to see with the Flower Hmong, who may be a show in themselves but their taste is far from the European style. I bought more than I wanted to do and I kept walking the market and taking shoots. These tribes are more aggressive, being in constant move to sell and they harass foreigners to buy and also they ask for money to have their picture taken, so the task was not so easy but with the lot of experience I had in snatching pictures it worked in the end. I spent in total about 2 hours in the market and around and I was at 11:00 am at the hotel where I was supposed to meet Bang.

We left for a walk, a trek they call it because the range of tourists/travelers is very large, and after a short walk on the road we started to go through rice paddies and beautiful landscape. The weather was sunny and the views were magnificent, with terraced valleys and hills covered in mist. We walked very slowly because I took so many pictures. On the same road we met an American woman from Seattle, whom I will meet latter in the village, and lots of Black Hmong who were going to and from work. Around 2pm we stopped at a beautiful hut located on a river cross and we ate some cold cuts and a beer that there costs more than in the most expensive restaurant in Saigon, 25000 dongs. We continued after lunch to the same slow pace and we arrived in the village. Meanwhile we crossed two villages of Black Hmong, in one of them I bought a water holder. The Black Hmong are very good artists but they are dirty and illiterate, based on what Bang said. They do not have electricity and are pretty impolite and aggressive. Basically they come after you and they keep pestering you to buy stuff from them, mainly cheap souvenirs. This is the reason they are not liked by the guides and all the accommodations, home stays as they call it, are done in the next village that is a Dzao village, another minority very industrious who send their children to school so they are smarter and better educated. The school is free for the minorities but not for the Vietnamese who pay a pretty hefty tax. The moment we got home, around 4:00pm, the guide and the hosts started to cook and the dinner that happened around 6:30-7:00pm was a festine with about 5-6 dishes. Obviously they are very generous and their tradition probably obliges them to cook so much but most of the travelers cannot eat the astronomical quantities they cooked there. Before dinner I went for a walk in the village in sunset and I kept thinking about our quick and constrained life in cubicles and theirs, outdoor. Obviously they would give it up easily for more cushy jobs but the atmosphere of the village was so idyllic that I could not stop thinking about this comparison. I sat on top of the hill and watched each household with its own flurry of activities, working in the garden, bringing back the water buffaloes, or planting on terraces and listening to the barking dogs or at one point monkeying with two girls from the village, a 13 year old that was as tall as Victor and the other of the same height being 8. I thought that the first girl was 8 but she was very mature for the age. After the walk I went for dinner and we ate, four of us, the owner of the house with his son, Bang and me, and drank a couple of glasses of Happy Water, the corn brandy they prepare in house. The dinner happened in the kitchen, on very low stools, maybe two inches from the ground and the kitchen was roamed by the house dogs and cats they were shushed outside when they were expressing their desire to have a bite. The after dinner tea is always a moment of relaxation in Vietnam and I had a long chat with Bang about all sorts of issues and about his travel groups and experiences he had with them: the most difficult by far are old Germans and Israelis. Germans are demanding and very impolite and Israelis want to get everything possible for the least amount of money paid. It was very interesting to hear this from a Vietnamese guy and to match in a way my impressions of travel, these two categories being the most difficult for me also to deal with. Of course there are exceptions, but they are just exceptions and not more than that! I had to cut short the discussion with him because I passed by before dinner to the nearby home stay where was a large group of travelers of all nationalities and I promised them I will join after dinner.

When I arrived the discussion was in full swing with Kristin, a journalist from Seattle perorating about the American domestic policy and journalism in the USA. There were also two Danish boys who just finished high-school and they were traveling for the first time in life for 4 months, the last one being in the USA, so I obliged to give them some hints for which they were in desperate need, a very funny Spaniard from La Rioja whose dream was to go in the honey moon to Las Vegas, a guy from Manitoba who was going to teach English a month in Cambodia, a girl from England and two girls from Switzerland, all of them, except Kristin, traveling the following night with the sleeper train back to Hanoi. After Kristin gave up the podium, the others started all sort of more mundane discussions and I chat a little with Kristin. She came with her mom to Hoi An to make her wedding dress (it is very inexpensive there) and she was getting married soon but her boyfriend had to work so he could not come with her in Vietnam. The discussions run late and at 11:00pm I went to sleep. The beds for the guests are in the attic, a sort of “duplex” apartment but basically like a barn. On this second floor there were about 15 mattresses each one with blankets, pillows and a mosquito net for the summer time. It was very clean and you have to take your shoes off when you got there. I slept till 6:00 but I heard all night the dogs barking in the village and in the middle of the night it became very cold. The walls are made out of lumber but not tight fit so you can see outside.

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2007 in Blog, Vietnam

 

Bha Ca

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Ba Cha Market – Flower Hmong

I woke up in the morning in the first horn of the traffic before sunrise and after packing and a quick breakfast where I was joined again by the Aussies. I left for the market. The market was a little slow at 8:00 am but started to get animated a little latter and around 10:00am was bustling with activity. The tourists were in a row with lots of cameras and tripods and early in the morning it looked like a shooting stage with lots of Flower Hmong women on one side and photographers on the other side. Latter on the number of Flower Hmong exceeded the number of tourists by a comfortable margin so the westerners and local photographers were lost in the crowd. The market sells everything, there are blacksmith making hoes and carpenters making the plouws, Flower Hmong buying and selling embroideries, Vietnamese selling dogs, pigs, cows, water buffaloes, horses, etc. I took lots of beautiful pictures like everybody else and I tried to find vantage points for great shoots but most of the time I admired the hustle and bustle of this magnificent market. The Cancau market was smaller but it had the advantage of being almost completely populated by Flower Hmong, here you find all sort of other vendors. I saw also Black Hmong but very few because most of them live in Sapa on the other side of the mountain. At 12:00 I left the market, I met Bang at the hotel and we left in the afternoon for a trek to see a village that is very close to Ba Cha. The village has all the mountain cut in terraces for cultivation and the landscape looks very interesting. We were able to get inside a house, something that the agency has arranged with the locals in advance, and the owner, who was Flower Hmong, gave us to drink something that he calls corn wine but is actually a very perfumed corn brandy, very strong, a sort of palinka, that I could not have thought that you can do from corn. Also, he played for us from pan flute a traditional song and dance and gave me a tour of the house, the major production being the corn brandy. After that we continued to another part of the village where there were houses of another minority named Tai.

We returned to Ba Cha for lunch and we left at around 4:00pm with the jeep to Sapa on winding roads crossing rice fields where people were working their fields with water buffaloes or planting rice. Great views! The road takes about 2 hours from Ba Cha to Lao Cai and another hour from Lao Cai to Sapa, crossing the mountains that they were still covered in clouds and when we arrived in Sapa the fog/clouds was extremely deep that we could see only at 3-4 meters. I got a room in Green Bamboo Hotel and I went for a walk in town, a stark contrast to the other villages, with lots of sleek stores catering mainly for tourists, selling nice weaving all priced in US$. The people did not looked so friendly, probably fed up by the number of tourists and Black Hmong women were pacing the streets and asked everybody if they want to smoke ganja. A sort of Jamaica in the mountains! I went a little to some of the stores, had my dinner and tried to find a internet store to make a phone call home. Tomorrow I will leave in a trek that will end up with a night sleep in a village house watching what the local family does in the evening and morning. So no internet at least for tomorrow, if not for the other day also when I will take the night sleeper train to Hanoi. The tourists that travel Vietnam are a different crowd that the ones in Burma, Tibet or even Cambodia. There are backpackers and travelers but most of them are on tourist groups. A lot are French looking very bourgeois and their age is the best in the 50s but mainly in the 60s, comfortable tours with all inclusive. Travel in Vietnam is organized very well and I think that exists tons of tours offered in the Western countries. So the interaction with other travelers, caused also by the magnitude of the two main cities and the main attractions that are around Hanoi, is smaller, not like it was in Burma or in the village of Siem Rep. But still I was able to find lots of people I interact with and Sapa I think is such a place where you can make contacts. I am now in this Internet cafe called Traveler Cafe, surrounded by travelers that just chat, exchanging all sort of travel stories.

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2007 in Blog, Vietnam

 

Cancau Market (Sapa Region)

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Cancau Market – Flower Hmong

We walk up around 6:00 am when the train got to Lao Cai, a city on the Chinese border. A guy from the agency was waiting for us in the train station with large billboards carrying my name, and they brought us right away to a restaurant for breakfast, that like any other meal in this trip is included. The surprise was that they did not gang us up together but there were two jeeps with two drivers and two guides, one for me and one for the Aussies, so after the breakfast we said goodbye, starting to drive over hills and mountains to the first market in Cancau. We stopped several times to take pictures of fields full of rice and of peasants plowing their fields with water buffaloes, the main mean of subsistence for these families. Nothing is mechanized and it looks, watching them work and barter, like we live hundreds of years ago. The clouds were very low and it was a little chilly but not colder than Hanoi. The area where we are now is lower than Sapa, the main town from the area and the main touristic center, that being at 1600m may be very cold, but supportable in March, this being one of the reason that I did this trip starting in Saigon and going towards the North.

The Cancau market was in full swing when I arrived with almost no tourists, that started to come latter, and lots of Flower Hmong people that were selling their wares and produces.Their customs are spectacular, completely embroidered in joyful colors that makes them the major attractions of these markets. There were some other people, like Black Hmong from Sapa and Dzao. They were selling also dogs, horses and water buffaloes, and the women were carrying their children on bundles stuck to their back. I spent at the market about 3.5 hours and left to Bac Ha, the major village in the area where tomorrow will be a major market. In Bac Ha we stopped to the house of the old ruler of the village during the colonial times, a large and elegant French Mansion. The Hmong ruler named Hua, was called by its people The King and he left with the French in 1954, probably in France and latter in California where his descendants are living nowadays. Again I spoke with Bang, my guide, about the American war and I got more or less the same answer. “The past is the past and we are looking into the future”. They love Clinton who did the opening with Vietnam. We came to the hotel where I booked a room, included also in the tour, and I left my luggage inside, after that coming downstairs for lunch. It came to be around 2:30pm when I finished lunch so it was no time left to go around so I went to the internet and I checked the email and do the blog from yesterday trip, hoping that later in the day I’ll do the second part. I went for a walk in the village, that is very basic, with some hotels and restaurants for tourists, but not too many tourists come here; they prefer to stay in Sapa and come here just for the market. I went to the market, bought some mango and when I was going to the internet I met some Dutch people and we had a very long and interesting chat about travel in Southeast Asia. They were also on a tour that went in China also, and they did not have too many good things to say about China, but they enjoyed Vietnam and Laos, who they told me that became the newest backpacker paradise, with places la Vang Vieng full of shops, disco music and large TVs in outside lounges. Finally, I got to the internet and I published part of the story but I had to go to the hotel to meet Bang at 6:30pm for dinner. In the hotel I bumped into the Aussies, with whom I had dinner, and latter on the Dutch guys and their wives showed up. I tried to go back to the Internet but I was up for a big surprise: both internet places in town that have in total 30-40 computers were completely taken over by the village’s kids who were playing games and chatting. I tried to go from one to another but the girls who were managing the places told me that is “Full” and is nothing to do….Latter! So I watched a typical touristy traditional dance show in one of the hotels and I got the idea to check in the hotel where I found out that they have an internet computer (only one!) and is working but very slow. Hope tonight to go to bed earlier, maybe 10pm.

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2007 in Blog, Vietnam