Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Hoi An

Our hostal in Hanoi had booked our train tickets to and from Sapa.  We told them we had a domestic flight from Hanoi to Da Nang on Monday morning, the same morning the train arrived from Sapa.  We were assured we would be back in plenty of time to catch our flight.

Apparently they booked us on a commuter train.  We slowly crawled into Hanoi when our flight was departing.  I was tired, cold, and stressed out.  The domestic flights weren't terribly costly, but I hadn't budgeted for an additional flight.  We ran to a taxi, sped to the airport, & when the airline employee told me my flight had left, I cried.

They put us on the next flight to Da Nang for no charge and gave us breakfast.  I'm telling you, Vietnam is a wonderful destination.

We flew south and arrived in hot sun.  It felt so good after the wet cold of Sapa!  We found a taxi to take us into the town center of Hoi An.
Hoi An feels like itself.  There are so many cities that now adopt characteristics of one another, or are less distinct due to globalization.  Vietnam has a strong cultural sense of self.  Some of its isolation has helped it retain a knowledge of its own cultural characteristics.  The country has been ravaged by war, but we rarely saw evidence of this.  Vietnamese people quickly rebuild.  In most parts of the country, we were struck by how well people knew their environment & how readily they created needed resources.  Hoi An is one of the few cities that hasn't lost old architecture.  It looks more like pre-colonial Vietnam.

That first morning we eagerly tried a traditional dish of Cao Dai along with two big frosty cups of Vietnamese iced coffee.  I only found the dish of Cao Dai in Hoi An.  Each region offers its own cuisine.  While it's all delicious, the food in Hoi An was my absolute favorite-- light, full of ginger, garlic, and lemongrass.
We found a hotel room for $25 a night that included a buffet breakfast, courtyard pool, reading porch, and romantic mosquito netting.

I've so far bored you with beautiful architecture, climate, and food.  I forgot to mention an important detail.  In Hoi An, tailors will create any article of clothing or shoe for practically nothing.

Throughout town you'll find sample dresses, jackets, suits, and shoes.  Once in the shop you show the design you like or offer a photo.  You select the fabric you prefer.  The staff member measures you to create the piece to your body.  Then you barter on price.  If you pay more, it is likely to be better quality.  You can pay next to nothing but there's no guarantee on quality.  I paid $30 for a wool coat, $7 for flats, and $12 for a dress.  Kevin had shoes made for $12 and a wool coat for $30.  Know your time frame!  If you only have four days, order your clothes on the first day.  That way, if you need any adjustments there's time to make them.

You can always find a good snack in Vietnam.

We rented bikes for $1 a day and headed the 3K to the beach.

If we'd had more time in Hoi An we would have done so much more.  Maybe headed to the Cham Islands off the coast.  Kevin wanted to rent motorbikes to travel to My Lai.

Reluctantly, we pried ourselves away from our favorite corner of Vietnam, and flew south to Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon.  If I ever move to Vietnam, I'm setting up in Hoi An.  If I ever run a yoga retreat in Vietnam, we will base in Hoi An.  As my friend Abdul said of Vietnam that before visiting, "it's as though you've never seen green."

Monday, February 25, 2013

Bac Ha

Have you ever wanted the option between getting home on a mule or a motorbike?  You may ask yourself that question at Bac Ha Market.
Bac Ha is the weekly market for most of the Hill Tribes.  On my 31st birthday, Kevin & I piled into a van from Sapa & wound through the switchback turns on the rain-slicked Hoang Lien mountains.

It feels like you could buy anything at this market!  Remember that wild west feel of Lo Cai?  A bit of that going on here.  Certainly a journey through time.

Under the tarps people got drunk on corn hooch and ate horse entrails.  It was rowdy, festive, warm, & smelled absolutely new.  Not bad necessarily, but I can't say I've come across the scent of cooked horse entrails before.

The animal markets were simultaneously the most upsetting aspects of the market, and the most intriguing.  Many of you know I'm an animal rights activist and advocate.  I don't like seeing the buying and selling of animals.  However, in this context, when neighbors who knew one another and lived much more intimately with these animals, traded in their neighborhoods and communities, it felt far better than puppy mills or factory farms.  This is actually closer to how I would like to see my own community.  I think it's important that practices that are often segregated from our everyday life-- animal harvesting, milking, trading-- be brought back into our vision.  When that happens and we understand these processes more intimately we're more likely to work towards equitable and humane solutions.  Well, I know that statement doesn't always hold up. Let's try this-- I think we're more likely to keep our involvement healthy if it's in our backyards and not hidden behind factory walls.  

We left the market in the afternoon to head towards Lo Cai.  We stopped at the border crossing with Hekou , China.  

Back to Lo Cai, a slow groaning train through arduous mountains, and a last stop in Hanoi.

Friday, February 22, 2013


We knew Sapa was potentially cold.  We'd brought layers.  While in Hanoi & Cat Ba, I checked the weather on my ITouch.  I have my weather app set to fahrenheit because those celsius conversions elude me.  Multiple times, I read that Sapa would be in the low 60s.  Awesome!

I don't know what's going on with this, but I talked to many other travelers who also saw false reports of higher temperatures in Sapa.  I also heard from tourists who didn't believe the posted temperatures & didn't go because they didn't want to be cold.  It was probably in the 40s but incredibly misty and wet.  The cold went to the bone.

This may be the conspiracy theorist in me, but I wonder if this wasn't a cynical tourist ploy to post false temperatures.  Just know that forecasts in Vietnam have been known to be... inaccurate.

So Sapa is cold.  At least in February.  I'm told it's lovely in September.  Thankfully, rooms that cost at least $20 (like ours, shown) all plug heater blankets below the fitted sheet.  Most guests turn that bad boy all the way up and sleep with it throughout the night.  It may be a fire hazard, but it's also a life saver.  Our room was surrounded on three sides by glass, on the fourth floor of an impossibly tall building on the side of a mountain cliff.  The power went out around 2 am & our teeth chattered.

It's also wildly beautiful.  We had been traveling steadily in Vietnam for over a week.  We hadn't been anywhere long enough to wash & hang dry our clothes.  We stunk.  I saw high forecasts in Sapa, so I thought it would be safe to give our laundry to our hostal.  That meant we had very few warm clothes until our laundry was clean.

Big mistake.

It was cold.

I would still advise going if you have the opportunity.  I doubt there's anywhere like it.  I wish we had more time and more warm clothes.  There are lots of intriguing trekking opportunities, some of which include homestays in surrounding villages.  There are some interesting eco-tourism opportunities that support local Indigenous economies.  We only had a weekend so we began hiking through town.

Even the kitten was cold!
Walking by a family of water buffalo was my first indicator that going to Sapa was absolutely worth it.  Even though the train ride was long & hairy to coordinate.  Even though it was cold.  Sapa is special.

We warmed up at a local restaurant.  They still had their Tet tree up.
We ordered a local, medicinal hot pot.  & hot coffee!  Always brewed in the cup through a french press.

OK, so now we had traveled to Sapa for water buffalo sightings and a hot pot.  The stew is on a hot pot, boiling as it's set on our table.  It was filled with ginger, garlic, onions, pineapple, carrots, and spices.  We added local medicinal herbs.  I recognized some sprigs and leaves but many of the greens were new to me.  We picked up strings of rice noodles and small chunks of tofu to cook in the stew.  Add the fresh greens on top of our bowl and devour.

After lunch I found a local spa offering Red Dzao herbal baths and massages.  I soaked in local herbs before experiencing more incredible body work.
We began hiking down to the Hmong village.
This part of Vietnam, Laos, and China is mainly inhabited by Indigenous groups like the Hmong, Red Dzao, & other "Hill Tribes."  Historically, they've often been disenfranchised from access and resources.  There's immense poverty throughout these mountains.  As is often the case, there is also incredible resourcefulness and resilience.  Farmers have terraced these mountains for centuries to create rice paddies and other crops.

We came across kids playing soccer on a terraced rice paddy.  My friend Walidah says the two universals are "Bob Marley & soccer."

(Can I mention how grateful I was for Keen sandals?  Traction!  So reassuring on perpetually wet, smooth stone steps.  Steep steps.  Say that fast.)

We caught a performance of young Hmong dancers.  There was also a Love Market while we were in town-- a time when young people begin mixing, mingling, and nervously thinking about romance.
I am willing to bet that you could find good food anywhere and at anytime in Vietnam.  My friend, Doug, missed that most when he returned home.  He couldn't step outside at 2 am & find someone cooking on a sidewalk brazier!

We were cold, wet, & felt at the furthest corner of the earth from our known experience.  The next day, a Sunday, was my Birthday and the Bac Ha market day.  We made plans to go to market, and then catch the Lo Cai train back to Hanoi.