Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Trash and Trekking

I hated Sapa.

We had only been there about 45 minutes and already I was fed up.

“This is AW-ful,” I moaned, head fogged with sleep deprivation as I flipped through our trusty Lonely Planet, trying to find another place, any place, to escape to.

Admittedly, I may have been jumping the gun a little bit. We had arrived in Sapa at 5:30am via an overnight bus on which I wasn’t able to sleep at all. Staggering off the bus exhausted and grumpy, I was emotionally unequipped to deal with the hostel touts who were yelling at us, pulling at our arms, doing everything possible to harass us into coming to their guesthouse. I know touts are a part of traveling, especially in this part of the world, but that morning I was so tired and miserable that I wished death- or at least grave personal injury- on each and every one of them.

We thought that we would have some respite once we had chosen a guesthouse, but it didn’t stop there. Instead of hostel touts, we were surrounded and subsequently followed by three women from the Hmong hill tribe, who tried to convince us to hire them as tour guides to visit their village. At any other time, on just a bit more sleep, this wouldn’t have bothered me so much, but I was not in the mood. Their attempts to engage us (“Where are you from? Is that your husband? Very handsome.”) seemed sinister and deceitful, their colorful traditional costumes came across as a plot constructed solely for the purpose of ensnaring naïve tourists. Normally, I am not this jaded, but that morning, I had had enough.

However, like most things, my bad attitude was nothing that a good nap couldn’t fix. After a few hours of sleep and a coffee, the little black cloud that had followed me since arriving in Sapa had cleared. My world was bright and sunny again. And Sapa wasn’t so bad after all.

We had come to Sapa to trek through the terraced rice paddies and hill tribe villages that are tucked away in the mountains surrounding the town. Before arriving, Vincent learned about a Sapa-based organization called Sapa-O-Chau ( that educates disadvantaged youth from the hill tribes and trains many of them to be trekking guides; so we headed to their offices to get information about trekking. While we were discussing various trekking options with the manager, he mentioned that things were busy for him at the moment because he was organizing a big event the next day during which the school’s students would walk from village to village picking up trash and raising awareness about responsible and sustainable waste disposal.

“Can we help?” I asked, unthinking, and without consulting Vincent and Elodie, who were immediately implicated by my offer.

Luckily, they were just as keen to get involved and the next day, we found ourselves in rubber gloves with a few other volunteers and around 30 students, picking up trash along the road. It was a gorgeous day, sunny and warm. We had a great time talking to the students and other volunteers and feeling like we were a part of something helpful and important. It was fascinating to see this group of students from various villages, many dressed in their tribe’s traditional costume, coming together to lead an effort that would benefit the whole community. These “under-privileged” kids were an inspiration: their motivation to make their surroundings healthier and more beautiful was both humbling and encouraging.

The amount of garbage was staggering and it was impossible to collect all of it, but we quickly realized that the day was more about awareness than trash collection. All along the way, villagers and tourists alike would ask us what we were doing and were interested in our effort. Some bystanders even joined in and helped us pick up trash as we passed, including small children who would make a game out of the pick-up, challenging each other to see who could collect the most candy wrappers.

The walk through the villages also gave us a sneak peak of the region’s unique scenery that would dominate our trek the following day. We had signed up for a two-day trek with a Sapa-O-Chau guide along with two other volunteers from South Africa that we had met during the trash pick-up. We were six people in all with our adorable 19-year-old guide Lan, who had a quick smile and an infectious barking laugh.

The landscapes we passed through were incredibly stunning: several times we would round a bend and all just stop, speechless, as we were hit with the view in front of us. Dramatic, green hills puncturing a low-hanging haze and then plummeting into deep valleys. Terraced rice paddies that climbed up the side of mountains, army-green and gold with late-harvest rice stalks. We were incredibly lucky to be in the area during the two-week harvest period:  the paddies were alive with activity. We watched whole families cutting the rice grass by hand while eight-year-old boys herded the water buffalo that would till the cut terraces with their hooves. We passed groups of people picnicking in the fields, taking a break from the difficult labor, and children playing in the bins used to collect the rice. The soundtrack of our trek was the deep, muted, drum-like rhythm of the farmers beating fist-fulls of dry grass against a wooden bin to loosen the grains. It was fascinating and we were grateful to be able to witness these ancient local rituals that were so integral to the region’s culture.

A young water buffalo shepherd

A Hmong woman looks on while Vincent gets rabies
Look closely and you will see the 10-inch knife in the little boy's hand. Who needs toys when you have sharp objects? (Photo by Elodie)

At one point we passed a group of children playing under the supervision of an elderly man. We were taking photos of the kids and laughing as we showed them the result in the camera’s viewfinder when the old man started gesticulating wildly, pointing at our cameras and speaking animatedly to Lan. We were concerned that the man was angry at us for taking pictures of the kids, but Lan explained that no, he wasn’t upset: he simply wanted his picture taken as well. The man posed, grinning as Leslie, the South African girl in our group, took a portrait of him. He was simply beside himself with excitement to see the picture and laughed with abandon when Leslie showed it to him. His mirth was contagious and soon all of us- the children, Lan, the old man, our little group of tourists- were laughing together, sharing a simple moment of joy that needed no translation.

Our new buddy and his charges
Quite possibly the two cutest kids in Vietnam (Photo by Shaun Children)
Our trek included an overnight homestay with a family, who were part of the Red Dzao tribe. While the Hmong people are known for their colorful indigo-dyed outfits, complete with woolen gaiters on their legs, the Red Dzao tribe are distinguished by their bright red head-dresses. The head-dresses are striking, however some women opt for red fabric lined with white, which, if I’m honest, looks uncannily like a Santa Claus hat.  I know, my cultural sensitivity is inspiring…

The homestay was not only a great time (excellent home-cooked food, awesome company), but it was also extremely comfortable. During every other trek we have done, the beds in the homestays are mats or thick blankets on the floor, but here, we had massive beds with pillows and mosquito nets! It was an unexpected, and extremely appreciated, luxury. To top it off, we were also treated to a Red Dzao tradition: hot, herb-infused baths. Our hosts boiled locally-grown medicinal herbs in a massive cast-iron pot and then mixed the scalding water with fresh water in wooden barrels for us to sit in and soak away our aches and pains. I don’t know if there is anything in this world that feels better after a 6-hour trek than a beer, a delicious meal and a hot herbal bath.

Helping Lan make spring rolls for dinner
Our host, making dinner in her "Santa Hat"
Soaking away his worries (except the one about his wife taking pictures of him at bath time...)
And now for the obligatory social commentary portion of this blog post.  Our homestay was interesting, but not in the way we expected. What surprised us was just how similar the family was to any other family in any other place in the world.  Yes, the mother had on her Santa Claus hat and the children were all dressed in traditional tribal dress, but that’s where the differences ended. While the mom cooked dinner (over the kitchen’s open fire on the ground), the kids did their homework. During dinner, as we tourists raved over the tasty spread of dishes in front of us and chatted about our day, the whole family ate silently, eyes fixed on the TV, where a Chinese program dubbing into Vietnamese was playing. They all started out at the table, until one by one, they turned their chairs towards the TV with apologetic smiles, taking their plates in their laps. It was the normalcy of the situation and the family that struck us. When we travel, we always focus on how things, and people, are different from where we come from, when in fact we should be looking at what we all have in common. Of course there are massive cultural differences, but beyond the superficial, we really aren’t all that different.

And with that cloyingly clichéd observation, let’s jump to our next destination: Ninh Binh, a smallish city a few hours south of Hanoi. We took the blissfully comfortable overnight train from Sapa and arrived in Ninh Binh with two days to explore. The city is a bit off the main tourist track, which was its biggest draw for us. Although we loved our trek in Sapa, we were becoming concerned that Vietnam was so firmly on the tourist trail that we would never get to know the “real” side of the country. Thankfully, we saw it in Ninh Binh, where strangers still waved to us in the streets and vendors didn’t try to add a couple thousand extra dong to the prices of meals.

The countryside surrounding Ninh Binh is known as the “terrestrial Halong Bay” due to its soaring green karst cliffs and rock formations that protrude from the otherwise-flat ground. We rented scooters to explore the area (Vincent and Elodie on one and me bringing up the rear on the other) and zoomed through country roads and small towns that rarely see tourists.

A flooded graveyard outside Ninh Binh
We culminated the adventure with a boat trip in a protected flood area during which a sweet young woman rowed us in a cramped wooden sampan along the base of the towering cliffs and through a cave.  

On our way back to Ninh Binh, we passed through a tiny village whose narrow winding streets wouldn’t have been out of place in Italy. Between the scooter and my giant sunglasses, I felt like a trendy Italian, zipping through the back streets of Rome.

That is, until I remembered that I was wearing convertible pants… 

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Good Morning, Vietnam

It’s 5:30 in the morning and I’m on the back of a complete stranger’s motorbike, zipping through the streets of Hanoi. The early morning air is still blessedly cool, the growing light still dim. In almost any other city in the world this time of day would be quiet, peaceful even.

But this is Vietnam. And at 5:30am in Hanoi, it is madness.

Motorbikes buzz by us like a swarm of bees, grazing my elbows as they pass. The traffic of bikes, cars and roaring trucks flows like a river through intersections; the lack of traffic lights transforming every side street into a tributary. There is constant honking on all sides of us as the sidewalks, alive with activity, speed by in a blur. 

A man on a motorbike passes us, straddling two freshly butchered pigs, their lifeless hooved legs bouncing as the bike flies over the pavement. We zoom past a woman on a bicycle, a conical hat tied with a red checkered bow under her chin. On the handlebars of her bike hangs a live chicken, its legs tied together over the metal bar so that it sways upside down like a feathered handbag. On every side of us people pass on their motorbikes, most wearing surgical face masks to protect them from pollution. I vaguely wonder why I don’t have a face mask when we are cut off by a scooter driven by a young women who deftly steers her bike with one hand. With the other hand she is holding a tiny baby on her knee like a sack of groceries as she weaves through the traffic.

We pass a lakeside park where crowds of people are doing their morning exercises. There are countless joggers around the lake and groups of 50 people doing Tai Chi or following an instructor in an open-air aerobics class. Old men in sandals stretch against a tree trunk. Several people are playing badminton on sidewalk courts, while others kick around a soccer ball. It’s incredible: the sun has just risen, the shops are still shut tight behind metal grates, the office buildings won’t open for hours, but the streets are positively packed with people.

Crazy-busy streets seem to be the norm in Hanoi, regardless of the time of day. The narrow streets are a constant stream of motorbikes, making the city a veritable obstacle course for pedestrians. We quickly learned that if you wait for a break in traffic to cross a street, you will wait forever; so we did what the locals do: take a deep breath, close your eyes and just walk, letting the traffic go around you. Any hesitation or back step will throw off the timing of the endeavor and is the best way to get hit by a bike. You just have to walk with confidence and trust that the drivers hurdling towards you are paying attention.

Hanoi is crazy and dynamic, and seems to be the most Asian of the cities we have visited. Communism has left its mark and while there are a few Western chain restaurants and shops, the city is largely resistant to mass tourism and globalization. Yes, there is the typical tourist ghetto that one finds in nearly every big city, but it only comprises of a street or two and is easy to avoid. Just a block or so from the tourist center and one finds local bars serving 40-cent beers and market stands selling dog meat. It’s authentic, frenetic and fascinating. And it hit us like a punch in the face after the laid-back tranquility of Laos.

A dog meat stand in the market
Commie propaganda 
Men playing Mah Jong outside of a temple

We had a couple days to kill before we were to meet Vincent’s sister Elodie in Hanoi, so we headed out to Cat Ba Island via a bus-boat-bus-bus combo that sounded way more complicated than it actually was. Cat Ba Island is one of the larger islands (or possibly the largest, I'm too lazy to Google it) in Lan Ha Bay, which connects to the famed (and overly-touristic) Halong Bay. Both bays are famous for their striking natural beauty: tall karst cliffs blanketed in green trees that jut out of turquoise waters. It really is an incredible area and Cat Ba Island ended up being a perfect jump-off point to explore it.

To get a feel for the bays, we took a one day/one night boat trip through Lan Ha and Halong Bay, passing through floating fishing villages and stopping to swim in the clear blue water and kayak in hidden coves among the towering rock formations. That night, we slept on the roof of our boat, which was docked in one of the protected natural harbors in Lan Ha Bay. We enjoyed a delicious meal as the sun dropped behind the cliffs and woke up with the sun as it rose again, bathing the harbor in soft, pink light.

Vincent and his beard on a boat
Sleeping on the roof of the boat at dawn
One of Halong Bay's floating villages

The next day we decided to do something a little more adventurous: free climbing on the cliffs over the bay. We piled with two other climbers and a climbing guide into a small dinghy and headed to a slightly over-hanging cliff which dropped off into deep water. The boat would bring us up the the cliff face, where we would climb onto the rock. Once we were on, the boat would back away, leaving nothing below us but our safety net: the water. With no ropes or harnesses to hold us, we climbed until we couldn’t go any further or until we got tired (which, honestly, wasn’t all that high- we are relative beginners when it comes to rock climbing). When we were ready to drop, we would let go of the rock, pushing off slightly to clear anything jutting out below us and falling around 30 feet (10 meters) into the water below.

It was a blast. And, if I'm honest, we felt pretty badass telling people we had free climbed in Halong Bay, like we were a couple of extreme sports enthusiasts instead of complete beginners.

We could have stayed longer in Cat Ba, but we had a date to make: we had to meet Elodie in Hanoi. It was so strange and wonderful to meet up with family on the other side of the world. The first five minutes were quite surreal, but then we all fell back into our normal ways and before we knew it, we felt like Elodie had been traveling with us the whole time. We spent another couple days in Hanoi shopping, getting a massage and eating some delicious food from street vendors and beer houses, where we enjoyed our meals elbow to elbow with locals who were all too happy to explain to us just how incorrectly we were eating specialties like dried beef and green papaya salad, fried tofu with tomato and garlic sauce, and noodles with beef and fresh mint.

After several days in Hanoi, we were ready for something a little more peaceful, a slower pace. We were ready for Sapa, Vietnam’s trekking capital. 

But that is another post entirely. Laos and Cambodia kind of got the shaft on this blog, what with all the rushing and the lumping, so I'm not about to make the same mistake with Vietnam. If history has taught me anything, it's this:  
You don't f-ck with Vietnam.