Well, another two weeks have passed since my last entry and I have had lots of wonderful Vietnamienne (the French word for it) experiences since then including lots more motorbike rides! I suppose work has predominated my time although I have spent 2 wonderful weekends exploring outside of Hanoi; a weekend in the Northwestern town of Sapa in the mountains close to the Chinese border and another in the famous Halong Bay on the Red River Delta.
Sapa is a town in the mountains (1800m) which most of the time is shrouded in cloud and mist which just adds to its beauty. The town can only be accessed by an overnight train journey from Hanoi either on a 'hard' or 'soft' seat - you can guess which one I opted for! Since my 'soft' seat turned out to be a comfortable couchette in a shared cabin I was very pleased and actually slept well as conversation was minimal with my 4 Vietnamese travelling companions - this was not because of lack of desire to communicate but my abysmal grasp of the Vietnamese language and their limited grasp of English kept any possible conversations extremely short! My return trip also found
me with Vietnamese companions one of whom played soothing Vietnamese reed flute music on her laptop which served to lull us all to sleep very nicely as the train travelled North to Hanoi.
Arriving in Lao Cai a town on the Chinese border at 5.30am is relatively uneventful until you are driven up a steep mountainside into the clouds where you eventually arrive in Sapa, a beautiful town shrouded in mist and surrounded by verdant green rice paddies and mountains. Many different ethnic groups live here and in the surrounding villages with the H'Mong people being the most predominant. Their beautiful giggly girls and ladies befriend you on every corner, with incredible marketing techniques and excellent English (all gleaned from tourists as they cannot read or write). Accompanying you on your treks to the local villages whilst selling you hand embroidered bracelets, bags and wall hangings they make great travel mates guiding you through the misty hillsides and across muddy embankments with the skills of a sherpa all whilst bargaining and modelling aforementioned goods on the way. They are both delightful and entertaining and certainly make the journey one to remember.
My hotel was owned and run by
French people so good hearty French mountain food was readily available although it seems slightly unreal to be drinking ‘vin chaud’ and eating gratin dauphinoise in Vietnam. For some reason the French loved this spot during their colonial time here and have stuck around opening small restaurants and cafes such as ‘Baguette and Chocolat’ where excellent banana pancakes can be had for $2.
Lots of tours can be arranged in the local area and since I am principally interested in the people, as opposed to the places during my travels, I opted to take a trip to the colourful Sunday market in Bac Ha. This is a town 2.5hrs to the North east of Sapa and of course entails climbing a vertiginous mountain (in a car of course, I haven’t gone that native). Of interest in the market are the local ethnic groups consisting mainly of flower H'Mong and Dzay peoples. They arrive here each weekend by trekking for several hours from their villages to sell their various wares which can range from a water buffalo, a puppy (for culinary purposes) or some juicy white peaches. Quite a day is made of it with lots of eating, bartering and
general good fun and they make an amazing sight in their amazingly colourful costumes. These scenes are in direct contrast with the second place I visited, and describe below, and only go to show the amazing diversity of this fascinating country and culture.
Halong Bay is a beautiful place to visit and I am sure will be one of the highlights of my voyage. It is reached following a 2 hr road trip from Hanoi where an exotic Chinese junk awaits to take you on your journey through the hundreds of limestone islands that dot the bay. As we slowly sailed away from the harbour and into this fascinating mix of land and sea I was struck by the way the horizon constantly fills with extraordinary shapes and colours.
Relaxing on the sun deck of the Dragon Pearl gazing at the jade coloured waters with a compulsory G&T in hand one can drift off in the knowledge you are in the capable hands of an inscrutable young Vietnamese captain who slowly steers you off into the sunset (see photo below). For those of you who know me well this is a role that suits me perfectly and is
surely what destiny planned for me (apart from lounging around swimming pools with banana daiquiris at hand)!
Days on the boat are spent visiting floating villages dotted between the towering islands or kayaking in the still waters of the bay. Water is not my most favourite element and kayaking is not my best sport but as a true adventurer I decided it must be done. Unfortunately, an eager young American with things to prove decided to share my two man canoe – this is one of the disadvantages of being a solo traveller as others like to befriend you! He managed to get us lost in the myriad of islands and my frantic rowing in circles in order to get us back to the boat made a highly amusing sight for our fellow boat travellers. Fortunately we did not capsize as there are some very large jellyfish lurking in the tranquil waters and I was not prepared to have a bottle of vinegar poured over me by my Aussie boat companions knowledgeable in all things pertaining to jellyfish.
Watery adventures apart another highlight of the trip was a candle lit dinner in a limestone grotto on one of
the islands accompanied by the crew singing us Vietnamese songs. Quite a surreal experience as I have never eaten crab, prawns and other fabulous seafood found in this region surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites. I was able to astound everyone with my knowledge of how to remember which is which of these natural phenomena by passing on information given to me by my Geography teacher, Miss Seddon, that ‘tites’ always come down.
I cannot believe I have already spent an entire month here as it has gone by so quickly and work will finish very soon and my month of volunteering will be over. I now plan to travel South to the coastal town of Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong Delta and Phu Quoc (a small island off the coast of the Delta) so will be back with more daring adventures in a week or so. Kath (me love you longtime) xxx
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