Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Vietnam - back in Hanoi

Arrived back to hanoi on the night train from Sapa at 4:30 in the morning. On the way into hanoi i could see the markets opening and the city coming alive.
There was suppose to be a staff person from the hotel waiting for me at the train station Among the hundreds of people getting off the train, dozens of taxi drivers trying to get you to take their cab and the hawkers trying to sell you something it was quite overwhelming after very little sleep. I could not see a staff person from my hotel so after about 15 minutes I decided to take a cab. There are only 3 cab companies one should use in Hanoi because the rest will cheat tourists. One of the drawbacks of traveling alone is that it is difficult at 4:30 in the morning to run around with a bag and a backpack to look at all the names on the cabs to ensure you get the right one. I opted to take a cab with a meter as I thought that would be ok. NOT. That meter was going faster than I could blink, I told the driver the street of the hotel so he did not take me all over Hanoi. However the meter really sped up when we got to the street my hotel was on and you have to remember it is 4:30 am and no traffic. The meter went so fast I could barely read the numbers ( ok maybe a bit of an exaggeration but you get the point). When I got to the hotel he wanted to charge me $17 for a ride that should have cost $5. I saw the doorman coming out of the hotel and knew they would pay for the cab. So I told him I think this guy is trying to cheat me. The hotel staff quickly ushered me into the hotel and a loud argument ensued between the hotel staff and the driver. The driver then came into the hotel lobby shouting so I was escorted to my room and told later that the driver was cheating me and the hotel would not pay his inflated price. They gave me a list of the recommended can companies.
If you are ever in Hanoi I would highly recommend staying at the hanoi moment hotel they are fabulous and I would be happy to give you Jenny's email address to contact her.
I showered, got a couple of hours sleep and then went down for breakfast. Thank goodness I showered at 5am because at 8am when i got up the power on the street was cut off by the government for 4 hours, so there were no lights in the hotel (except emergency ones) and I was on the six floor. I have posted a picture of me having breakfast by candle light.
Apparently the government cuts power randomly on a monthly basis but the hotel did not seem to know why?????
At breakfast I ran into a vancouver couple I had met before leaving for Sapa. I found out that Judy Villeneuve has been a city councillor in surrey for 23 years. I joined judy and her husband mike in a taxi to the ho chi Minh mosolium and museum.
Visiting the mosolium reminded me of my days in east Berlin in the 1970's. Very rigid security, no smiles, lots of barking orders and hoarding people. We had to put our cameras through a security check and then we were given little red bags to put them in and then at another checkpoint they took the camera out of the red bag put a number on it gave you a duplicate number and said we could pick them up on the other side. Seems to me they could streamline this process but maybe they are trying to create work since 65 percent of the population in Hanoi is under 35.
We were then ushered by what is supposedly ho chi minh's body in a glass case in a guarded room. We were then able to retrieve our cameras on the other side.
Off to view ho chi Minh's cars, home and stilted house where a lot of high level negotiations took place.
We visited the museum which is quite spectacular with many displays about the plight and struggles of the Vietnamese people. This land has been invaded and or occupied by the French, japanese, Chinese and Americans. At times it seems the people were slaves in their own country. I do not profess to know much about ho chi Minh nor his beliefs but if the info I read had any truth it seems he was a very simple, principled man who had a dream - one united free vietnam, with food and education for its people ) sounds a little like Martin Luther kings dream for the blacks in America. Uncle Ho as he was called was loved by the people of Vietnam and at one time had a lot of influence but that became less and he became more of just a figure head as others got into power with their own agendas. He did not live to see a free united vietnam as he died in 1969. I am not sure how much of this information is propaganda so I will need to do a little Internet surfing.
Time for us to go highland coffee on the third floor above the roundabout and do some serious people watching.
I left my new friends to go visit the Hoa Lo prison. This prison opened in the late 1800's and was where vietnamese suspected of being communist sympathizers were sent to be cruelly torchured and put to death by the French colonist. Later it was dubbed the 'Hanoi Hilton' when it was used to house American pilots shot down during the Vietnam war. This is the prison where John McCain (the senator who ran for the republican party against Obama) was a POW. The prison has pictures of the POW's including McCain playing basketball, making Christmas dinner and decorating a Christmas tree. Interesting how this differs from American version. Their recounts are of torchure, leg irons and solitary confinement.
Although I find the people in Hanoi unfriendly I must say they are great cooks. I have enjoyed some of the best food I have ever eaten and it is soooo cheap. I have taken the opportunity to buy street food like the banana dipped in dough and deep fried for 50 cents, or the sticky rice cooked and served in a bamboo shoot, green papaya seafood salad or one place I ate was called Bun Bo Nam Bo it was recommended to me by the couple from Toronto and was about 4 blocks from my hotel. When I found it the place was one step up from eating off the little plastic tables in the street. It was a small corridor with short, long metal tables and benches. The place was full of locals and me. When I sat down they plunked a bowl in front of me filled with a delicious broth, noodles, topped with fried garlic, beef, bean sprouts and crushed peanuts- yummy and it was only $2.50. You must be careful where you eat pho soup as some places use store bought Ramon noodles (I saw the cook from our hotel coming in from the shops with a bag filled with packages of Ramon noodles) the best pho is on the streets if you are brave!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Vietnam - Sapa

I arrived back at my hotel from halong bay at 3 pm and was to take the night train to sapa. The hotel had kept my luggage while i was in halong bay and upon my return they gave me a room so i could shower and rest before i had to leave for the train (all at no charge). I will now try to do justice to the last 48 hours and explain my adventure to Sapa. Sapa is about an 8 hour journey from Hanoi and you take the overnite train. There is a day train but they tell me it is not appropriate for westerners and after taking the 'luxury' night train I will believe them.
My hotel advised me not to stay in Sapa, they would have me transported 18km outside of Sapa to the topas ecolodge. They said I would have an incredible view of the rice paddies and be able to visit the local villages and this area is a lot less commercialized than Sapa.
The hotel sent a staff with me to purchase my first class train ticket and he stayed with me until I got on the train. Thank goodness he did as purchasing the ticket was very confusing even for a local and the poor staff person was having difficulty finding out what train I was on and people in Hanoi do not seem to be helpful even to their own.
The train station is very packed and quite dirty so finally when we were allowed to board the train at 8:30pm I was happy. The young man took me to car number one as indicated on the ticket. Well when we got to the room I was suppose to be in I was horrified. I have never seen anything so dirty in all my life and I was expecting to be in a room with 4 soft sleeper bunks. This tiny room had six hard beds and there was a bamboo mat (much like the ones you use on the beach in Hawaii except these ones were filthy) - I wouldn't even attempt to describe the washroom we passed in the corridor. My hotel staff person could not speak english but I was able to convey to him that I would not stay in this car and would rather go back to the hotel and skip Sapa. He was able to finally get help from a train staff and found out car1 that I was to be on is actually car 2- go figure????
When we boarded the second car I could immediately tell it was much better. I was in a berth with 3 other people (a couple from toronto and a girl from Paris). There was a sort of mattress on the bed with pillow, sheets and a blanket - and everything was small but clean. I was delighted there was a plug in for me to recharge my iPad. They supplied bottled water and tea. No changing in to pj 's though you pretty much take off your shoes and climb under the covers. As I tend to be a snorer I was concerned about keeping the others awake so I sat up most of the night and dropped off only for a couple of hours. We arrived at the train station outside of Sapa at 5am and it was still dark. There was a man holding my name when I got there. He led me to a van where he and another man got in and started driving-neither of them spoke English and apparently I was the only pick up - oh goodie. After driving about 10 minutes they stopped in a square. Now imagine I am alone with these two guys who do not speak English in the middle of nowhere vietnam and it is pitch black outside. This is really out of my comfort zone - oh well! After sitting there for about10 minutes with the engine running the driver makes a call on his cellphone and then we are off. Now we are going through all these tiny back streets in some village and things are not looking great. Finally he stops to pick up a Vietnamese girl in her twenties who also cannot speak English. We drive for about a half hour to the town of Sapa where the extra man and girl get out. From what I can understand they hopped a ride to Sapa in a taxi that was already paid for. The road to Sapa is very steep, narrow and winding. However it is like a first class highway compared to the 18 km dirt road from Sapa to the ecolodge. It was still dark and the mist was rolling in so visibility was minimal. The road had incredible deep ruts and looked like it had been hit by mortar. I have to admit I was truly scared and even started saying a few prayers to myself. At one point a vehicle was coming the other was and could not pass us so we had to back up on this narrow road with no guard rails and you can't see a foot behind you because of the fog. This is not how I envisioned my life ending. Anyway we were able to do it or the driver was able to do it while I white knuckled the seat in the back and we finally made it to the ecolodge truly in the middle of nowhere Vietnam. I will try not to think about the ride back to Sapa right now.
The view from here is suppose to be incredible but unfortunately it is so fogged in I cannot see anything which is a bit disappointing. I was greeted by the local tribe women at the entrance to the lodge. They were all trying to sell me their crafts and they are not allowed on the lodge property so they catch you at the entrance.
The lodge is lovely and would be the same caliber as Tigh Na Mara lodge. It is managed by a young man from Denmark who speaks very good English. It is now about 7 am and I was not able to check into my room but was able to have a delicious breakfast and since there is WIFI here I was able to catch up on emails. Do not hesitate to send me emails as it is nice to hear from everyone.
After I got settled in my lovely unit with a balcony overlooking the rice paddies (unfortunately due to fog I cannot see a thing) I decided to ask the manager if there were any organized tours I could take. At the hotel back in Hanoi I was told I could walk around on my own and visit the villages but because of the dense fog I did not want to do this for fear of getting lost. The manager told me I had missed all the tours for today but if I wanted to be adventurous he would go to the road with me and see if one of the ladies would take me to the village and then probably want me to buy something from her. Little did I know I was about to embark on a 3 hour journey that will leave me with a lifelong memory and will be a highlight of my trip. When I think about this adventure it brings tears to my eyes - I have learned the unexpected in life can truly be amazing.
When we got to the road he tried to negotiate that only one lady take me to the village but that was not to be and I ended up with 6 escorts.
A little info about my escorts - there are 10 different tribes in these mountains and they all dress differently and speak different dialects, none speak Vietnamese . My escorts were from the Red Dao minority village Thanh Kim. One of the ladies could speak minimal English which I was later to learn she had picked up from tourists. They were very interested to know where I was from, how old I was, how many children I have and where was my husband. I tried to answer their questions the best I could. The were all between the ages of 41 and 52. The 41 year old has 5 grandchildren and the 52 year old was very proud that her husband was a year younger than her. These ladies have never gone to school (I did not ask if the could read or write). The tribes in the mountains have no income only the few dollars they pick up from selling their crafts to the tourists that come to the lodge as well as some money from the cardamon spice they grown in the jungle areas and harvested by their husbands. They are totally self sustaining growing their rice, vegetables as well as raising a few pigs, chickens and ducks. All the tribes in the mountain area get along well with one another and from what I could gather there are marriages between the different tribes.
The walk along the road to their village is about 3 km and as if the road was not challenging enough to walk they decided to take me down the side of the mountain alongside the rice paddies, over the river to their village as this was apparently a short cut. Even though it was foggy I had an great view of the rice paddies, saw a young man on the side of a mountain pushing an ox and crossed the river bridge (needless to say the bridge was missing a few parts and likes to swing back and forth). The ladies were so sweet and caring. They kept holding on to me so I wouldn't slip on the muddy trail (well kind of a trail but after the jungle journey this was not so bad).
Finally we reached lema's house and she was so proud to invite me in.
The house is quite large and 10 people live there Lema, her husband, two children, two grandchildren, son, his wife and two children. The house is made of bamboo and wood. The floor is a poorly laid cement pad very rough, covered with dirt and lots of holes. Very little furniture just a few tables and some plastic chairs. However there is a tv (just an old one like the ones we throw away). The ladies showed me the kitchen where cooking is preformed (no kitchen aides or granite counter tops here). There was one area piled with corn that had been husked and was drying. They then showed me how they grind the corn to make the meal and then mix with egg for food.
They cook over an open fire in a huge wok type pot. The picture of the large round bowl with plastic is where Lema washes clothes. They collect their water in large barrels from rain water off the side of the mountain. The government has brought in power which they only use at night for lights and i am guessing TV. Lema showed me her bedroom and I only saw one bed so I am not sure where everyone sleeps but there is a ladder to a loft so I guessing that might be a sleeping area.
Some of lema's grandchildren came for a visit while I was there. The seven year old girl was looking after the 2 and 3 year old boys. The little two year old was whining at grandma as he wanted to be picked up and cuddled (some things are no different in any culture and that is how much a child needs to be cuddled). Lema wanted to feed me and give me something to drink- now how am I going to get out of this without offending her. I told her I had just eaten breakfast so I was not hungry. She insisted I have something to drink. So she set up some tiny plastic chairs around a little low table She had two plastic water bottles one with a clear liquid which I assumed was water and the other was a brownish liquid. She took two cups and blew in them to make sure they were clean and poured some of the liquids in each cup. I felt obligated to take part in her hospitality and knew I had diarrhea pills back in Hanoi should this go terribly wrong. I took a sip of the clear liquid and it just about blew my socks off as it was her homemade rice wine. They all laughed as they knew I thought it was water. The brownish liquid was like a sweet water- god knows what it was but I am still alive and no stomach problems yet. I told her I could not drink all of the rice wine or I would not be able to walk back to the lodge so she poured it back into the water bottle. Just so you know I asked if it was alright for me to take pictures and she was delighted. In fact the more pictures I took the happier she was and often took the camera to take pictures of me (some of them were interesting as I don't think she has much experience in this area). I noticed a number of young people around most of whom have motorbikes and cellphones and she told me they work in Sapa. It seems the young people are being educated and it does not look like the ways of their parents will be carried on in the future. I did not see any old people and did not want to be impolite by asking. I did ask about the Vietnam war and it was clear they did not want to talk about it.
On the way back we took the long route via the road so I could see the rest of the village. The yellow building is the primary school and the white building is the hospital.
When we were almost back at the lodge entrance the ladies stopped and wanted to sell me some of their homemade crafts. What I was to realize later is that when we got back to the entrance of the lodge there would be about 10 other ladies from different tribes who would want to sell to me and my ladies did not feel inclined to share! I only took 400,000 dong with me which is about $20. I told them that was all I had and would give it to them but I would like a small craft from each of them to take back to Canada. Lema did the negotiating for me and I have ended up with 6 different purses. They were just thrilled as apparently this is a lot of money to them. Then each of them tied a bracelet on my wrist for good luck and told me I was their new friend- I was almost in tears. We have so much and they have so little yet they are so kind and so much fun to be with. I will cherish my memory of them forever. When we got back to the entrance of the lodge all the other ladies tried selling to me but I said no and asked the guard at the gate to take one last picture of me with my ladies!
After a goodnight's sleep I woke up to more fog and you still cannot see a thing which is really unfortunate. So I will get the shuttle back to Sapa in the afternoon. Spend the afternoon in Sapa and have dinner before leaving back to Hanoi on the night train. Oh no now I have to think about driving on the road to Sapa (could be the title to a foreign film).
When I left the lodge my ladies were all there to say goodbye Lorna and hope I come back and to give my granddaughter a hug from them. OK now I am in tears.
Got to Sapa after a non- relaxing ride down the mountain and it was miserable. It was soooooo cold and foggy you could not see anything so unfortunately I was going to miss all the beautiful scenery. However I have met a nice young couple from Toronto and they will also be traveling to Hoi An in the next couple of days and we are going to try and connect when we are there.
On my train ride back to Hanoi I shared a sleeper at with a couple she is from Ho Chi Minh city and he is from honolulu and was just at whistler and big white mountains last month. Boy is it a small world.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Vietnam - Halong Bay

Left Hanoi for the 3 hour car ride to halong city where we would get on the boat and head out into halong bay.
There are many different cruise operators and the price for an overnight journey ranges from $99 up over $200. After checking comments on trip advisor and recommendation of the hotel I chose Bhaya cruises which is $185 The drive to halong bay included many interesting sites; oxen on the side of the road, endless rice paddies, lots of traffic and horns blowing. The roads remind me of the roads in the maritimes in the early sixties (narrow, poor quality and full of potholes). Some of the house along the way are very beautiful and well kept and then others are shacks with a Lexus sitting outside so it is hard to figure out the economic situation. There are lots of Vietnam flags flying in this area (red flag with star) , also a number of red flags with the russian hammer and sickle insignia.
Along with hundreds of other tourists we arrived at the dock for everyone to embark their appropriate vessel. I was delighted to see the bhaya as it was a beautiful boat and when we boarded we were GIVEN a drink (unlike north American cruise ships where you have to pay). We were then taken to the dining area and treated to a delicious buffet lunch and I was seated on the outside deck as we sailed through the bay.
Halong bay is a designated world heritage site and its name means 'descending dragon bay'. The bay consists of thousands of limestone karsts and isles of various shapes and sizes.
After lunch we were loaded on to smaller boats that locals row and taken to the nearby floating water village where 60 families live. The view is just breath taking At the floating water village there is a school which was refurbished in 2011 by the Killara high school of Sydney Australia. There are a number of floating water villages in the bay but this one is apparently the largest and we even got to observe the children in school.
One can see some debri in the water but the people rowing the boats scoop it up with nets, the water is actually quite clean We were then taken to an area where the pearl farms are located - apparently most are owned by the Japanese. We boarded another floating boat and watched a girl insert a grain into the oyster - these are called cultured pearls and normally cost far less but they are more plentiful than the natural pearls.
On the row boat I met two young couples; one from washington DC on their honeymoon and the other couple she was from Tennessee and he from Texas. However they both knew of the Loveless Cafe I visited with Marianne and Brian last May and he had actually visited the cafe.
Back to the boat to go to happy hour before dinner (drinks are two for one so the only cost about $4 each). I met up with the honeymoon couple in the bar and we started talking to another young couple who are living in Taiwan it turns out he was born and grew up in Vancouver and went to UBC
When we were all seated for dinner the young honeymoon couple asked me to join them and we had a lovely dinner and evening together. Especially when the chef surprised the couple with a special wedding cake and a special dance - I was busy taking pictures and was wondering if others on the boat may be thinking they have brought their mother on their honeymoon. After dinner the two couples and I met on the upper deck of the boat as it was a lovely calm evening to enjoy the scenery.
My room on the boat was very comfortable and I had a good night sleep. The next morning we were put into small boats and taken to the limestone caves. I felt like I was in an Indiana jones movie. These caves are huge and spectacular as you can see from the pictures We were then taken back to the main boat, served a lovely brunch as headed for the dock and back to Hanoi. This time the two couples and I were all put in the same van so we again shared a few laughs exchanged emails and hopefully meet up again in the future. The three young couples I met really made this experience special and I thank you.