Thursday, 30 August 2012

Coming Home with the Black H'Mong tribe - Trekking Sapa, Vietnam (2 of 2)

 July 30th, 2012 - Aug 1st, 2012

Everyone woke the following morning with no trace of a hangover and we devoured a huge plater of pancakes with honey between us.  My 6 year old friend had decided to join us, Julians porter strapped his backpack atop her bamboo basket, May and our group ready to go.  The 15kg (about 30lbs) backpack on top of her bamboo basket must have been awful.  It was top heavy and her shoulder straps offered no padding at all, the woven string digging into her gorgeous outfit.  Slightly concerned for her well being I asked her if she was okay.  Not once did she frown;  "No problem!  Not heavy!"

May lead us through the village and guided us down paths which looked like private property although as we are learning, neither 'private' nor 'property' are defined as in the West. Doorways are open and any path immediately outside the house (or otherwise) is considered a right of way. Social etiquette determines personal space and the lines of privacy must be subtle inside where families of three or even four generations often sleep together in a single room. 

Looking back across the hillside as we progressed revealed a scene much like the previous day. Groups of both tourists and local tribeswomen joined us for this second day of trekking and parties were spread across many pathways scratched from the hillside and between the paddies to cultivatable level.  A path just a muddy as yesterday led us amongst the rice and through a small bamboo forest.  My young friend stuck by my side the entire way, offering me her hand when the going got steep.  Despite being confident in my trekking abilities I took her hand anyway and allowed her to guid me along these trails.  If anything, her hand made my steps slightly off balance and if I was going down, she was surely going down with me.  Regardless of this, bless her little heart, she took my hand every time.  I definitely was not getting out of this one; somewhere along the line I knew something in that bamboo basket of hers was going to find its way into my backpack and some of our hard earned was going the opposite way. 

Around midday we paused high up on the wall of the valley. A beautiful waterfall cascaded down the sandstone cliff into the valley below and May warned us to be careful. They lost a young trekker a while back when he explored too far to the edge which curved gradually and deceptively before becoming almost vertical  We stopped here for a good half hour, washing boots, drinking in the stunning surroundings and the sunshine and indulging in final conversations before the end of the days hike in the village below us and across the valley floor.  I was sure to tell all our local friends how fortunate they were to live in such a beautiful place.  During my travels over the last seven years I have seen many places in many countries, across four continents and this valley is definitely within my top five. There is something about the lush green terraces, the natural lines being worked with rather than bulldozed through, the brown bamboo huts nestled into the landscape as if they belong and above it all the peaks of the hills that are part of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, the eastern-most extremity of the Himalayas, reaching 3000 metres heavenward. It feels like a home.

As the afternoon came to an end May linked arms with me and told me she wanted to touch snow with her hands.  I whole heartedly offered my home to her.  Over the last two days she has managed to create and personalize relationships with each couple in our group, managing somehow to make us all feel like she was 'our' guide.  If I could, and if she were willing and wanting, I would show this girl the world.  If I had the money I would fund her trip to Canada so she could touch the snow with her hands and maybe throw a couple skis on her feet.  So she could feel the icy cold of the winters I love and see her breath with every exhale.  I know though, that in reality she probably is not even able to obtain a passport; her people, moved on over the hills through the centuries from Myanmar or China through borders they had no concept of and they truly are not recognized as Vietnamese people.  They are the Black H'Mong and she will continue to live vicariously through her tourists and maybe one day she will have enough money to continue her education at senior school. She speaks three languages fluently and is learning Dutch and Spanish now with a little German thrown in for good measure and though her happiness and her love of her home is obvious, I cannot help but wonder what would have become of such and open, peaceful and brilliant mind had she had the opportunities I have had.

At the end of the trail we were once again accosted by women trying to sell us their handcraft.  I only had one girl in my eyes though as I beckoned towards my young helper.  She offered me small wallets and handbags and I picked her largest; an embroidered blue bag she made with her own hands.  Then the bargaining began at 200,000 VND (about $10), a price higher than I expected her to start off.  I hate this part!  I bargained from 40,000 dong and eventually we met in the middle at 100,000 VND, a good days earnings for a six year old!  

Julian pulled a $20 note from his wallet to give to his eager sherpa.  As he handed it to her, she went on to ask for an additional 100,000 VND on top of that telling him "the bag was heavy!" to which he replied "I know!" and shaking his head with a smile he refused.  The bargain had been made and she could probably take the rest of the week off with her handsome sum.  

After a hug from May we boarded a minibus back to Sapa where were to spend the night at a hotel as well as being reunited with the remainder of our luggage.  We wandered the weekend market of Sapa, where all the local hill tribes come to sell off their handicrafts and produce, dressed in their gorgeous handmade attire; the red headscarves of the Yao women and the intricate needlework geometrics of the Black H'Mong being the most prevalent.  We were, however, financially wiped out from the previous two days and were unable to even think about any further purchases regardless of how beautiful these things were which made saying 'no' to every single merchant, every few metres, who called for our attention much easier, apart from a pair of earings Julian managed to bargain for me. They were similar in style to those worn by the Black H'Mong women and will always remind me of that glorious valley and the smiles and welcome from our wonderful hosts. 

Dinner at the hotel that evening, which was included in our ticket, was one of the worst meals we have ever been served.  I didn't know it was possible to destroy tofu as badly as this 'chef' managed and be forewarned; do not ever drink Vietnamese wine. Never before have I not finished a glass of wine but this glass proved the rule "there's a first time for everything" (even when wine is involved). 

The following morning we woke early to a lousy Sunday breakfast of eggs that had been cooked on Friday (in March) and a cup of mud masquerading as coffee before boarding a mini bus for the 3.5 hour ride to the  market of Bac Ha, famed as the largest and most colourful of market in the north.  The hill tribe women around these parts dressed differently than Sapa. Here the Flower H'Mong are those most numerous. Their headgear, tops and dresses, bags and skirts, decorated with brightly coloured horizontal and angled stripes and are flared almost to ankle level though through the stiffness of the material or with help from hoops I cannot say. 

 The handicraft was just as beautiful but this market is really about the spaces away from the tourist purchases and where one comes to buy a new ox, buffalo, horse or cow.  Along with the usual raucous 'wet' market selling meat and fish (live until purchase to ensure freshness) the vegetable and spice stalls, the bright displays of chilli peppers, the squawking of chickens, the birdsong of the caged (not for eating), the heat from the braziers cooking bananas, nuts, meats on sticks, and dough, deep fried in the ubiquitous woks, the aromas of cooking in the food hall style dining and the constant hum of the meeting of friends, the telling of news and of bargains being struck on everything from table runners to ice-creams; there is a muddy field full of tethered livestock for sale.  

Other than our home stay and trekking with May; the tour reminded me exactly of why I dislike tours.  After our allotted hours to stroll at leisure around the market, and dutifully reporting for lunch at the given time, we were ushered from place to place following our guide like a flock of sheep with no freedom to roam.  Provided meals were dire and additional stops like a tour of a traditional village much resembling homes we have just seen where I stepped off the muddy trail into shin deep buffalo shit and lost my shoe.  For some reason Julian refused to fish it out for me and I spent the rest of the afternoon shoeless. A final stop to see the boarder of China from across the river simply prolonged the day. As interesting as this market was we both agree that it was possibly not worth the six hour round trip journey.

Coming Home with the Black H'Mong tribe - Trekking Sapa, Vietnam (1 of 2)

July 29, 2012

With the night upon Vietnam we walked across the tracks to board our northbound train.  As independent travellers we tend to avoid tour operators as much as possible knowing that a little effort and time (which we have a-plenty) will usually save us dollars (of which we have too few) but this time it was unavoidable.   There are dozens of tour agents and hotels now littering the storefronts in old quarter of Hanoi.  Having had no straight answers at the railway station, two days were spent asking for prices and advice and any question about travelling to Sapa on our own was met with discreet avoidance.  

After our two days of research we came to realize the indeed the tour was the best option, we bit the bullet and booked paying only about US$20 more between us than we would have independently.  This offered luxuries we never would have chosen on our own accord including first class berths on the overnight train, but negated the hassle of shuttles from our hotel to the train, from Lau Cai to Sapa and of course our usual search for accommodation once in Sapa. It also gave us the guarantee that we would see and experience a culture and a way of life already in decline, to a deeper level than we might have if we had struck out without a guide; allowing us to integrate if just for 36 hours and live as they have done for generations until the advent of motorbike and farm mechanization which is now coming even to these far flung reaches, along the Chinese border, with ever increasing rapidity. As we would see; mobile phones, North Face backpacks and even the technological wonder of wi-fi internet is already prevalent. As long as the flow of dollars continues then change and assimilation into the new world order are inevitable. With luck and a little consideration a balance might be struck by the H'Mong allowing the traditions and culture to live and breathe still amongst a healthier, more comfortable age but already the road high up on the valley wall is busy with the buzz of Honda and Yamaha and breeze blocks are replacing bamboo walls. Red tiled roofs stand stark against the green paddies and the superficial appearance has been marred by unsympathetic, multi-storey, square box architecture funded by generous donations of foreign money creating schools and health centres. Time will tell more than I can.

Once at the station we realized why the booth operators perviously insisted there were no available sleeper trains to Sapa that weekend.  Each coach is privately owned and the seats are disbursed amongst the  agents, booking guests on tours.  We shared our four berth cabin with two other Vietnamese men (civil engineers heading to Lau Cai on business); twin sets of bunk beds with fresh linen, silky blankets and complimentary water.  Comfortable enough and comforted by the rhythmic sound of the train against the tracks eventually sleep took me. 

Much too soon we were woken at 0530 by a pounding at the door.  Upon opening it a man asked "Mini bus to Sapa?".  We nodded groggily and Julian sprang into action packing up our stuff while I grumpily rubbed my eyes.  The man constantly insisting we hurry, further stressing us and we were urgently herded off the train, through the station to a waiting mini bus.  As we approached, Julian realized that no names had been asked for and no introduction given. Shaking off the last remnants of slumbers he took out printed instructions from our tour operator out and read the statement: 'OUR HOSTS NEVER ENTER THE STATION.  DO NOT GO WITH ANYONE WHO DOES NOT HAVE YOUR NAME ON A LIST!'  Surprised, we shook out head at the man who sighed in frustration at Julian's wagging finger, and we walked away to find our designated guide. 

Seated in the proper bus now I was quickly hit once again with motion sickness as the bus wound up a steep, twisting, turning, switchback road towards our destination 30km away.  Having not slept well or eaten I felt more ill than ever before and spent the entire journey with my head buried in my lap (I really have to figure out a cure for this motion sickness thing.  It's not something that has ever bothered me much before but here its so regular that I dread being in transit. Not good considering our overland intentions).

Finally we were dropped off at a hotel where we were to leave our bags for the next two days while we trek into the hills.  The breakfast buffet was all but emptied by the time we got to it. We ate buns with sweet jam and rubbery eggs before meeting our guide.  After the unsatisfying breakfast, a rushed tooth brushing and hectic bag re-packing hour I was left exhausted and grumpy wanting nothing more than to bury my head under a blanket for a couple hours.  My withdrawn demeanour quickly melted away however when I was greeted by a beautiful Vietnamese face in traditional dress.  Her round cheeks, almond eyes, long jet black hair, infectious smile and bubbly attitude quickly stole into my heart as I looked down at all 4"6' of her tiny frame.  She was adorable.  She gathered our group of six; two Dutch couples and ourselves, and lead us down the pavement to the market square in the centre of Sapa village. 

Stalls tended by women in traditional dress lined the streets with their goods. Fruits, vegetables and handicrafts; jewellery, clothing, handbags and machetes.  As we passed them a dozen or so tagged on to our group and joined with us on their walk home.  All the women are taught at a young age how to make their clothing, each tribe with a unique, identifiable style and our accomplices were all dressed in gorgeous blouses and skirts with intricate embroidered bands, geometrically patterned at cuffs, upper arms and hemlines. Each carried a bamboo basket on their back and yellow plastic sandals or bright blue wellies adorned their feet.  Many groups like ours set off on this trek out of Sapa; at least four entire trains worth of people split into parties similar to ours but mingling with each other as paces, spacings, differing routes and conversations stabilized on our initial descent out of the town. With the tribal women and tourists walking together at around a 1:1 ratio, so far this guided trek hardly felt like a guided trek.  We were just walking home with them. 

The usual introductory "What is your name?", "Where are you from?", "How old are you?", "Do you have any brothers or sisters?" conversations went on;  the majority of the women spoke enough english to carry on these topics before dropping back for the same conversation with the next person in line or chatting in small groups in their own tongue. We were never left alone for more than a few minutes, there was always somebody there to talk with or laugh with despite language barriers.  Our assigned guide, May, on the other hand spoke impeccable english and with a quick and infectious smile, was as eager to share her life with us as she was in asking us about our homelands.  This bubbly 17 year old personality lives with her parents and two older brothers at her home in a village of about 250 families. She started trekking with tourists a year ago and loves the interaction with us. Multi lingual and with her vicarious worldly knowledge she could well have travelled around the globe four times over when in fact has only ever left her village once; an outing to Hanoi that an Australian couple, her clients, treated her to.  The couple had offered to pay for her to travel with them south to Saigon but she was so uncomfortable with the heat, noise and pollution of Hanoi she opted to return home after just two days. 

With Sapa behind us we followed, initially along a metalled road then dropping sharply down the side of the first valley, up and over a shoulder until we rounded a corner and beheld the home of the Black H'Mong tribe. A long and luscious, high green valley surrounded by steep terraced rice paddies and to a skyline of rolling mountain tops beyond.  Clouds nestle amongst the hills and the cool air is invigorating; it doesn't take long to realize this is one of the most beautiful spots on the planet.  I praise my fabulous Ecco boots for their grip and complete waterproofness as the mud rises towards my ankles whilst other tourists slip impossibly along the slanted trails in tennis shoes and the local women in their plastic sandals (who were more sure footed than any of us) offer a helping hand (sometimes two) to those in need. For some reason they left Julian completely to fend for himself (A blessing indeed. My own boots and balance were quite up to the task….Ed.) 

We hiked along the narrow edges of the rice terraces, crossing small streams and circumventing muddy dwellings and back gardens with pigs tethered and chickens scuttling out of our path. Workers visible across the paddies at times, a group of children playing amongst their daily charges of water buffalo as they graze until eventually we came down to the valley floor to a long concrete bridge and a road leading into a village. A girl no older than six pointed to a yellow building, her school, on a hill top overlooking the homes spread throughout the valley.  Crossing one more bridge they lead us out to our lunch stop after some five hours of trekking. May told us to "meet her inside when we were finished" and it was there that our companions began pulling their handicrafts from the baskets on their backs.  "Buy from me, buy from me, very cheap!"  I felt obligated and guilt ridden as I shook my head 'no' at the ladies who had offered me their hand along the trail.  I just can't do it.  As much as I want to help these people and buy all their handmade goods to support their families, in our current situation I am simply unable afford such generosity or carry it all in my pack!  

My heart wrenches as I pass through swarms of women, some as young as four or five years old as they press their handbags, wristbands and wallets in my path.  They follow us to the open sided dining room calling to us "please, have a look" from behind as Julian congratulates my efforts.  We are greeted with menus and cold drinks and some of the local women stand on the stairs looking at us expectantly.  Once we are seated however drinks are presented any attempt by the tribeswomen to walk down the stairs to press us further is mercifully discouraged by the proprietor. I breath a sigh of relief as we are separated by culture and race from those more economically challenged and we are left to eat in peace. 

After a set lunch of fried rice, pork and egg May greeted us again and we continued our walk through the village towards our night accommodation.  The muddy path lead us past humble bamboo huts, livestock and children walking home from school (which is free for the village children up until senior school). Young boys ride on the backs of water buffalo as they herded their charges along the path amongst a few motorbikes and far more pedestrians, a lot in traditional dress but an even greater number in western style T-shirts and shorts, no doubt the final destination of some of the clothing banks we see in the cities judging by the predominance of familiar products advertised on the fronts of children and adults alike.  These people are used to tourists coming into their village and we barely raised an upward glance; May told us she remembers white skins coming here since she was born.  

May coming down a footpath from her home
Needing to collect her overnight bag from home, she asked us to wait momentarily for her whilst she did so. One of the Dutch women asked if we might accompany her.  She responded enthusiastically and we followed her down the path towards her home; a two room bamboo hut with dirt floor and a mezzanine level at either end.  The upper left level was where they were drying corn, upper right her parents sleeping area.  Downstairs to the left of the entrance an enclosed area where she and her brothers slept.  The entrance way and main central space was empty of any furniture and to the right a small living space and kitchen similar to that of the home we visited in the Karen village, north Thailand, with an open fire pit containing a charcoal brazier and running water from a stand pipe on one wall.  Her parents (who spoke no english) smiled in welcome to our intrusion, obviously well used to their daughters strange acquaintances, while a couple of dogs and cats ran around. Outside there is a muddy, enclosed court yard shared with their neighbouring relatives with a few chickens scratching and pecking at unseen morsels amongst more dogs whilst at the back of the house, trellised cucumber and pumpkin vines grow vivaciously over the wood pile providing the family with a much needed source of vitamins and iron. On the side of the dwelling a valuable plough blade and various other metal and wooden tools hang from the outer walls, sheltered from the weather by the eaves and the bamboo leaf thatch that reaches down to head height and we stand aside as her brother and two of his friends ease their moto's down the narrow alley between house and the (family owned) paddy fields adjacent and away along the path we had just walked.  

Leaving her house a couple of kilometres behind us, May lead us up a hill to our home-stay where we picked up a new tag along;  a 6 year old girl who decided to befriend me. She lived with her family in the next village over but hiking the rest of the way up the hill to our home-stay she decided to spend a couple hours hanging around there with us.  Inside the large hut which would be our home that night 25 beds lined the walls divided and sheltered by a mosquito netting.  Picking our space we eagerly showered and joined everyone else at the table; a group of about 12 tourists resting after a days trek.  After my new 6 year old friend had repeatedly asked me to 'buy from her' she eventually gave up by saying 'maybe tomorrow' and left me finally in peace.  My will was apparently much stronger than Julians that evening.  An local women of around 40 presented him with a handsome handmade, embroidered shirt which she wanted 400,000 dong ($20CND) for. After the usual (by now) 20 minutes of showing of wares and monotonic English phrases, learned parrot fashion by all the street traders the conversation went to:  
"I'll tell you what,"  he says, laughingly "you carry my bag for the entire day tomorrow and I will buy that shirt from you at 400 000 dong, no bargaining!"
She took half a second to think about the offer before declaring that she would join us on our hike tomorrow.  Unsure, I said "Wait a minute! You don't know how heavy that bag is." and went to fetch it for her.  Containing all that we 'absolutely cannot live without' (sic) including our wash kit, clothing changes for us both, a 3 litre water bladder and Julian's enormous camera (plus the second lens) the pack weighs in at around 15 kgs but she took it from me effortlessly and with a huge smile declaring it was 'not heavy'.  Amused, I took it back from her and the deal was sealed between them with a 'pinkie swear' before she departed for the evening having secured a days work for the morrow. Feeling a little (but not very) guilty at the idea of this diminutive woman taking his load the following day, Julian voiced some concerns but was quickly put at ease by the other women present telling him she was quite capable of hauling 40 kgs all day long should the need arise.

With all the merchants leaving us for the evening meal we could finally relax.  Our hosts cooked us a fabulous meal which we enjoyed over light conversation.  That evening May and her friend, who was guiding another party at our residence (and who's name I am so disheartened I forgot; she was a fabulous woman!) sat with us for a drinking game as they worked on more embroidery.  They taught us "Snap" and brought out a bottle of 'rice wine' which in fact was more like a rice spirit with an alcohol percentage of what I think must be around 30%.  The game turned quite enthusiastic and conversation flowed as freely as the rice spirit.  We went through 4 bottles; they had 20 litters of the stuff out back which only takes 1 day to ferment. One of the guys we were with turned beat-red as the spirit caused him to open up and admit he was gay, finishing the sentence by saying "okay, thats awkward." 
I smiled warmly at him and shook my head, telling him its not at all awkward and his friends pretty much told him they assumed so anyway, which made him relax.  May, sitting next to me with her arm hooked around mine, clenched my skin and looked at me with disbelief.  Having never met a gay person before she openly displayed her feelings of confusion and discomfort at this new theory.  I told her this is very common where I come from but she couldn't begin to comprehend the idea.  Nobody in her village has ever admitted to being gay and such things are not discussed amongst her people.  While the conversation continued she whispered to me that she was nervous and uncomfortable around him now.  I think I managed to ease her feelings after a while and told her she was very lucky to be exposed to so many different cultures and ways of living.  She agreed with me, visibly happier about the situation.  The evening proceed with some songs, more rice wine until eventually we all drifted off to bed and a sound sleep at the end of a long and enriching day, somewhat conscious of a reasonably early start the following morning.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Chaos of Hanoi, Vietnam

 July 24th - July 28th, 2012

 The first morning in Hanoi Julian rose early as usual and headed off for an early stroll around the city. Wandering around the military headquarters, a restricted compound covering several blocks in the heart of Hanoi he is told off in no uncertain terms by a Kalashnikov wielding military guard for walking too close to the restricted zone. Apparently outside the walls is not enough and he has to cross four lanes of traffic to the other side of the road. Paranoia is apparent and abundant, on first impression the rumours appear true: The authorities are fearful of those they seek to control. Generally heading west he made his way towards the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh himself, preserved and lain in state in a glass sarcophagus. After getting told off once more for trying to take a short cut to "Uncle Ho's" residence he joined the queue and filed past the body (or for the cynically minded, the Madam Tussauds copy) of the father of modern Vietnam. 

Ho Chi Minh was a visionary. Having grown up under the French 'protectorate' which did little to protect the Vietnamese in the first half of the 20th century, he strove for an independent nation. After forming the French communist party in Paris he received training from Moscow and later from China, Ho Chi Minh led the Vietnamese struggle for independence in the war with the French from 1946 to eventual victory in 1954. The ceasefire was bittersweet however as after post war negotiations in Geneva the country was split in two and the DMZ formed along the 17th parallel, just north of Ho Chi Minh's home town of Hue. In 1963 after it became apparent that Diem, president of South Vietnam would refuse to be party to national elections, the North turned officially from political to armed opposition to the regime in the South. The struggle for reunification would last for the following 12 years, the repercussions are still begin felt today. Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 and never saw his dream realized but it is testimony to his contribution that the country's second largest city, Saigon has been renamed after him. His former home in Hanoi has been preserved as a museum and crowds pass quietly through the grounds in almost a reverent atmosphere.

Following the tour around the palace complex the obvious final stop is the Ho Chi Minh museum. The political propaganda in this building is extreme and exactly as a boy growing up in the home counties of England had been led to expect. Row upon row of photographs of 'important' political and military leaders receiving awards and medals for one act or another. The text is boring, even to scan read and repetitive and on the second floor the static displays are monotonously grey and equally as dull as the pages and pages of text, poorly translated into English. A quick circuit was enough to satisfy curiosity before a return to the hotel and breakfast. 

Gate entrance to the Temple of Literature

Stepping out of our air conditioned room into the chaotic, hazy heat of mid morning; Hanoi was already a hectic buzz of activity.  An overwhelming amount of vehicles; motorbikes, cars, pedicabs, trishaws and bicycles swell the streets to capacity.  There appears to be no rules on the roads here. Horns are blazed to warn when one is about to overtake, enter an intersection, turn at a junction, reverse, execute a three point turn and even for no apparent reason what so ever.  There are no stop signs and traffic lights appear only at SOME major intersections.  Other than that, it appears the road is free game. Accidents are apparently commonplace and disputes solved with either fists or bribes, on the spot; apart from the inconvenience of waiting goodness knows how long for the police to arrive (should you care for them) of course that would introduce a third party to any incident and that would correspondingly increase the costs as he would need to be "compensated" for his time and judgement.  Three lanes turns into seven or eight lanes of traffic and any extra space is immediately taken over by any vehicle or pedestrian of the right shape and size. Crossing the streets is a game in itself.  Generally I just take Julians hand, close my eyes, step into the void and hope for the best. 

The sides of the road are lined with street vendors of all sorts.  Women carry their goods in two large baskets which balance on their shoulder on a bamboo support; fruits in one and their young child in the other.  Their day starts around 4am, loading up and walking in from home just before sunrise to set up their stalls if they are fortunate enough to claim space.  If not, they will walk the streets with a heavy bamboo beam supporting baskets digging into their shoulders, resting at intersections, perspiration beading on their foreheads under their conical hats. 

"You buy from me, Sir?  Very cheap!  Special Price for you!" they call out to passers-by. Quoted prices are always at least twice as much as they expect to get which bring forth the game of bargaining between merchant and customer.  This game is always played in good humour and with giant smiles (Lonely Planet states "frowning is not a bargaining tool"); each person wanting to get the best deal. Julian has got this game down to a 'T' by now, enjoying the haggling process intertwined with good humoured conversation, language barriers always making things more interesting.  Admittedly, and despite the good nature of this business, I find the process challenging and sometimes uncomfortable.  Everywhere we turn, as "wealthy" western tourists we are continuously kept out our toes and often taken advantage of as, with a lifetime of experience, they pry every last dollar and dong they can get from our pockets, often pressing for much larger amounts than the goods are worth.

Throughout old town we are constantly called to purchase fruits, sunglasses, sweet deep fried dough and savoury meals from vendors aging from four years to 100; children sent out to help support families at a very young age as school is not an affordable option and retirement usually not an option for the elderly.  Sometimes shaking our heads 'no' politely with smiles on our face is enough to send people in search of other customers but often 'no' is not enough.  They will follow us down the street pushing their goods in our face in hopes we will "Please, take a look, Sir!".  Eventually Julian, having learnt from Bangkok in particular, began to have fun with the vendors as they walked with us for a few blocks having full but somewhat one-sided conversations, using the english language to its full capacity knowing full well his words are not being understood, developing his own rapport to match their sales pitch.  With a smile on his face he will insist that should make a purchase now he will be "unable finance little Johnny down the road for the new yo-yo he desperately needs nor send May and her sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles and second cousins-once-removed to school so they might better themselves in this harsh and dangerous world and besides, if we bought all the zebras, elephants, bananas, pastries and coach tickets we have been offered; how on earth would we carry it all in our merger backpacks? After all, we don't have any walls to hang them from and the postage would triple the costs despite the 'special price' and really, a new suit is no use whatsoever to a travelling trucker unlikely to be invited to any weddings, funerals, birthday celebrations or bar mitzvahs in the near future and the dragons we're sure to meet in China next year would suffer as a direct consequence of any purchase today, and you wouldn't want that, would you?".  He is just as persistent as they are, barely drawing breath until the exasperated merchant will stop in amused amazement, shaking her hands at us in defeat.

This becomes routine as we explore Hanoi; constant interaction causing our perception of the mood of the city to change dramatically as we visit the sights.  Some who are eager to get into our wallet and whom are used to regular interaction with tourists are generally friendly.  This is not always the case however and as we venture out of the tourist zone we are often greeted with narrow eyed glares and a very different, not so positive energy.  One man called out to me "Hey, you American?!".  Shocked and suitably offended I responded to him that I was definitely not American which seemed to satisfy him and he went back to his business.  Cold stares followed us around parts the city from the older generation and the conversation between Julian and I focused very much on me picking his brains for information about the Vietnam / American war and I began to understand the ill feelings from the people in the north a little more. 

We visited one of the several temples in Vietnam dedicated to Confucius; The Temple of Literature which hosts the Imperial Academy, Vietnams first university.  The grounds are gorgeous; large pools such as the 'Lake of Literature' surrounded by mature trees with impressive root systems.  Large potted bonsai trees decorate the courtyard amongst various statues of important teachers and scholars.  Despite war and disasters the temple has undergone major restorations preserving the ancient architectural style.


In most cities we will read up on the popular sites of the city and spend time touring these areas.  In Hanoi however, the "sites" are few and far between so our experience was related much more to the vibe the city gave off; the people, the chaos, the energy and noise of the streets and narrow alleyways and we spend a couple of days simply wandering the streets and taking it all in.  In book and from fellow travellers we have heard that Vietnam boasts some of the best food in SE Asia.  Within the first few days we spent in Hanoi I have yet to be convinced of this and have been consistently disappointed with the menus on offer and dishes laid before me.  Finally, on our last night before leaving for Sapa we found a street stall which offered the best food so far.  Shrimp and noodles for me while Julian ordered "beef and fried potato'.  He was presented with a plate of french fries with sautéed beef and smothered in a gravy thick with garlic and ginger.  Poutine, Vietnam style.  I only wish I could have indulged in a entire plate myself, my health conscious guilt taking over.  I'm finding things tough enough that foods I choose not to consume on a 'normal' basis are unavoidable here as I find myself eating rice or noodles daily. My body is definitely having trouble processing it along with issues with lack of the nutrients I'm used to through not having available either the variety nor quantity of vegetables we're used to eating.  My usual active lifestyle limited here to yoga (when I can cope with the heat) and walking around new places is taking its toll on my mind and body and I anticipate spending the next few days trekking up to hill tribe villages in northern Vietnam. 

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Luang Prabang, Laos and bus trip to Vietnam

July 21 - July 24, 2012

Knowing Laos to be the least developed of the SE Asian peninsula did nothing to prepare us for Luang Prabang.  Our accommodation was by far the most luxurious of budget accommodation we have had yet, food prices were the highest and the colonial architecture felt like you were walking though a part of France in need of a paint job.  Old town at night offered a particularly lovely vibe.  The lack of streetlights in exchange for beautifully lit buildings created a unique atmosphere that made one feel like enjoying a glass of wine at one of the numerous appealing spots (or maybe thats just me?).   It is the first place we have come across where visa cards are widely accepted, even our budget accommodation was the first that was happy to collate charges together in a final bill, western style, to make debit and credit cards a viable option rather than the Asian habit of paying as you go, day by day. For the first time we found many places actively advertising travellers cheque exchange and there is a money changer every few hundred metres in the old town. The entire place is geared up for tourism in every sense, providing all the convenience and luxury a traveller of any budget may be seeking. 

As lovely as this little place was I felt like I was missing the real Laos.  Surely this is not a typical town in this country and it both exceeded yet disappointed expectations, especially as this is the only place in Laos that we will be visiting this time around (with intentions of traveling from south to north in a couple of months).  

Every morning the devout line a street in Luang Prabang to give alms to the monks of the town in return for a blessing.  Of course this happens all over Asia, but in Luang Prabang it has become something of a theatrical ritual and Asian buddhists will make the pilgrimage specifically to take part.  I have seen the monks waiting to receive alms in other towns throughout Thailand and Malaysia, but never as here.  By the time I arrived on the scene at 0545, the sidewalk was already lined with people, their purchases of food already made from a small army of women with the traditional supplies of rice, fruits and biscuits in their suspended bamboo baskets. Across the road, western tourists look on with a mixture of bafflement and interest and the two sides of the road spent an amusing 10 minutes taking photos.  

At 6am the chief abbot of one of the local temples (I assume this regularly changes by ballot or rotation) enters the street at the head of a column of some 200 - 300 monks and they proceed in turn down the line at a sedate pace as the devout fill their alms bowls to capacity and beyond.  In the gutter of the road stands a young street urchin, with a large blue plastic basket and periodically one of the monks will turn and pass some of the food to him until that basket too is full and the child disappears, presumably to share the days bounty with his brethren. The women of the town meanwhile stand behind the devout, ready at a moments notice to resupply a waning stock (at a price of course) and the westerners run from one position to another like a pack of wolfish paparazzi, hungry only for the best angle.
After 20 minutes, its all over, the last line of monks heads off at the intersection to divide the meal between them at their respective wats; the women pack the last of the food into their baskets and make for the market place and another days work; the devout, no doubt reeling in heady thoughts disappear to their own breakfast and the rest of us dissipate to cups of coffee and examinations of three inch screens under the rapidly warming sun. 

At the other end of the day, the night market offered some of the most beautiful, quality handicraft we have come across yet and our usual tight fist was pried open to a number of items on display.  A gorgeous painting, a t-shirt and a stunning silk sarong easily took us three times over our daily budget and that's without the postage costs to send it all back to Canada.  We need to get out of this place! 

Unfortunately for me, the only way overland to Vietnam, to be on time for the hill tribe weekend market in Sapa, is via a 24 hour bus journey.  "Singapore to the UK by Land' isn't always as romantic as it sounds. Sometimes I wish we might fly instead.

Before our bus journey we visited Wat Xieng Thong (or Temple of the Golden City) which is a gorgeous example of typical Laos art and temple architecture;  the roof sloping towards the ground with gold inlays in the carved door depicting scenes from Buddhas life and elephants built into the outer walls. The interior was sumptuously decorated, carpeted from wall to wall and contained, along with the usual Buddha images, incense and candles, the most glorious gong. With the hammer placed conveniently on the stand it was beyond my self control not to hear the rich booming tone just the once. As rain poured from the heavens we dutifully inspected the rest of the compound including the building which houses the funeral chariot and urns for the royal family, the Wat having been under royal patronage until as recently as 1975.

The journey to Hanoi was both my best and worst overnight bus journey. The upper seats were full to capacity with other western travellers in high spirits looking forward to another new country.  On the plus side we had fully reclinable seats which made the journey so much more comfortable.  The seats however were so close to the ceiling that you almost hit your heat, I had a pillar for a window and decorative tassels dangling in my face obstructing any kind of view I might have had.  Within 20 minutes that familiar feeling of motion sickness hit me with a kick in the head and all I could do was recline in my seat for almost the entire duration.  With no bathroom on the bus, when one had to go the bus pulled over and we went on the side of the road.  The women squatted at the back of the bus huddled together in the dark and pouring rain.  At night this was fine and barely bothered me.  It was during daylight hours when we had to pull over and pee in view of oncoming traffic that was far less dignified.

Sleep did not find me that night though as we twisted and turned around corners as it traversed mountain passed often making me feel as though I was suspended from an inversion table and being swung around like a game of game of tether-ball.  The horn sounded to warn every motorbike en route we were overtaking.  Of course, Julian slept easily and it wasn't until our driver pulled over at 0230 and another 30 Asian people piled on the bus that he stirred at all. The Vietnamese settled below us on what I thought were luggage racks but in fact were sleeping platforms with no windows, no ventilation and basically no comfort what so ever.  These people piled on the bus so loudly it was atrocious.  Babies crying, some people fighting for space, others talking on cell phones, one woman demanding an English girl move seats to accommodate her (which was not happening) whilst the driver whipped a blanket from beneath a western girls' head to offer to the newcomers. The hectic expedition lasted about 20 minutes before the bus finally pulled out, moved about 100 meters and pulled over again.  The mood on the bus changed dramatically.

The driver proceeded to yell at us in Vietnamese to alight.  Confused and tired we were all reluctant to pile out of the bus; the driver pointing at us individually to hurry out of our seats.  Pointing a finger and speaking harshly at Julian who was in no mood to deal with his attitude after being woken up in the middle of the night.  Refusing to get out of his seat he blatantly insisted he did not have to use the toilet and wanted to remain sleeping in his place.  More forceful now the driver continued his harsh rambling until we all moved out and dutifully lined up at the toilets.  Inside the women's restrooms five palm leaf baskets sat on the floor which caged 3 chickens each.  All I could do is laugh in my exhaustion at this bizarre sight as we all tried to get our head about it.

Apparently it was breakfast time.  We were served a bowl of chicken and rice soup which was decent but I was turned off from the scene in the bathroom and couldn't help but consider the cleanliness of the kitchen that used public toilets as a larder.  

When the driver was ready to go he let everyone know.  That familiar barking tone ushering us onto the bus, pushing us forward when the person in front had yet to move.  It wasn't long before we decided that not only was he the worst driver but he was also the rudest person we have ever met.  His treatment towards us was appalling and I began to envision being transported somewhere against our will.  The only solace being the comfort of our reclining seat and the air conditioning mercifully keeping the bus cool.

We made two stops the following afternoon.  We pulled over for 'pee break' on the side of the road which four ladies took advantage of.  As we searched for some kind of cover I was appalled to see the three drivers (who were exchanging duties in shifts) peering at us from around the bus.  We later stopped for lunch some 12 hours after our previous 0230 breakfast and was once again blown away when I saw a woman chopping vegetables on the concrete floor in front of the hose tap outside the bathroom used for hand washing.   

The 24 hours turned into 27 hours as we paused at three or four locations to allow our Vietnamese contingency off at part-way destinations before we pulled into an unsurfaced yard under a major freeway intersection.  A young Vietnamese man boarded the bus and offered us a solution:  A US$2 ride into Hanoi city to any location with a stop at an ATM for those in need. At 2130 on a soggy evening in Hanoi and after 27 hours on a bus, his information and command of English was invaluable and we all breathed a sight of relief for his helpful and inexpensive service.  Having no pre-booked accommodation for that evening as usual for us, he suggested his own hotel which after speaking with fellow travellers we have found to be one of the cheapest, most comfortable options in Hanoi. Should you ever be in the city we can definitely recommend    We deposited our luggage and went for our usual foray for food (coming across dog on the menu for the first time) then both passed out before the clock stuck 12 and slept for a solid 11 hours.