The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 23rd – Ta Va, Sapa, Lao Cai

Mercifully, a complete power outage ends the TV fun downstairs and the whole family finally goes to bed. However, proudly continuing the tradition of sleeping like crap, I manage to wake up a few times during the night. Once due to loud dog fights and once again due to a rooster with a distorted concept of time (seriously dude, 3AM is not a signal to wake up and sing your lungs out). Everyone is up around 8:00 for a quick breakfast and an even quicker goodbye to the host family. The man of the family shows up again to briefly shake everyone’s hand and that ends the extent of our interaction with the Red Dzao.

As we set out on the last hike of our three day Sapa tour, it becomes apparent that Katka and I have gradually become the charity cases of the group. Katka is still wearing Belgian girl’s scarf to protect her neck from going up in flames. The same Belgian girl lends me her rain-cover for backpacks, because the scary grey clouds around us seem to mean business! Her boyfriend lends me his socks, since after breakfast I discover that one of mine is mysteriously missing (a new Bermuda Triangle?). Finally, the British couple keeps offering Katka a T-shirt, because hers hasn’t managed to dry overnight and she only has her “Batman” poncho for cover.

At some point we actually consider asking for donations…

On the hike we’re accompanied yet again by a huge group of Black Hmong. We get to a fork in the road and our vodka-happy guide gives us a choice of going the “easy” or the “hard” way. As soon as he gives us the choice he immediately decides for us by basically saying that the “hard” way is a no-go due to the massive amounts of rainfall that came during the night. The “hard” way gets extremely muddy after rain and he makes it sound like we’d be practically swimming in mud to get anywhere. Unsurprisingly, everyone votes for the “easy” way and we continue.

While the “hard” way would have taken us up some steep slopes and probably resulted in the same slip-n-slide experience as yesterday, the “easy” way just follows the road. Along the way we come across some young kids riding buffaloes, like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

“Did someone call a cab?”

We reach a waterfall where everyone takes some obligatory pictures. While our group is busy taking photos of each other in different configurations, we notice a few other groups arriving from the direction of the “hard” way. They drop down from steep slopes like SWAT teams (minus the cool gear and athletic skills). They’re completely covered in mud and sweat, so we’re immediately happy for our choice of the “easy” way.

Close to the waterfall lies an old wooden suspension bridge. It’s exceptionally narrow and looks rather worn out. It leads to a dead end rock. It’s probably somewhat dangerous and completely pointless to cross the bridge. Naturally, we all take a trip there and back, one person at a time. We film each other performing this “feat”, secretly hoping that some minor-yet-hilarious incident would make one of us an instant YouTube sensation.

I must admit it’s quite an exhilarating experience to walk down a derelict wooden bridge hanging well above a rushing stream of water. For a brief moment I even imagine I’m Indiana Jones on a quest for skulls, grails, Chupa Chups lollipops and whatever else he usually hunts for. Then I’m told by the rest of the group to put down the whip and fedora and stop being a jackass, so I return to solid ground.

They’re just jealous of how awesome it makes me look…

After I’m finished with my crazy antics we leave the “bridge walking” area. Upon exit we are promptly charged a token fee for having used the bridge. I guess “risky wooden bridge crossing” is the Hmong version of a theme park ride.

We settle down for a quick lunch of noodle soup and bananas at a nearby cafe. We’re surrounded by kids and I hand out the rest of my candy and chewing gums to them. The Belgian scarf-woman has a bunch of balloons that she inflates and gives to the kids. The kids are mesmerized. After lunch we’re picked up and driven back to our Fansipan View Hotel. The road is narrow and slippery and there’s plenty of traffic, so the ride takes a while.

Back at the hotel we’re directed to a separate room with some showers, where we get to shower and repack. While waiting for our bus to Lao Cai we go online to pick out and book a hotel for ourselves in Hue. We settle on Ancient House Hotel, which, despite its hardly promising name, looks quite modern, comfortable and affordable. Unless its pictures are Photoshopped and reviews are doctored (you just can’t be paranoid enough these days).

At 16:30 we’re picked up by a mini-bus. We’re sharing it with the same Danish family that accompanied us on the first day. Only this time we’re also joined by five other people. The bus is overbooked and the only way everyone’s luggage can be squeezed in is by stuffing all of us into the car first and then piling our bags on to and around us. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 21st – Sapa

We’re woken up at 5AM upon arrival to Lao Cai. It takes us a while to realise that we’ve already arrived so we’re the last ones to hurriedly pack up and leave the train.

As soon as we step out we’re approached by a guy who offers us a bus ride to Sapa. We almost stupidly agree, because we assume this is part of our packaged tour. The only reason we realise it’s not is when he asks us where we’re heading. Then we try to get to the main exit of the Lao Cai station. On the way we’re approached by many more drivers offering trips to Sapa. A conservative estimate puts their number at about ten million, but there’s a slight degree of error involved in that calculation.

At the exit we’re met by a man holding up a sign with my name. My last name is misspelt in only two places, so it’s close enough. I’m used to it being butchered in unpredictable and hilarious ways.

“Did you just call me Iron Maiden?”

We get into a mini-bus that we’re sharing with a few other foreigners. It’s very nice to be so far away from home, with nothing to remind us of cold, rainy Denmark…except with us in the mini-bus is a Swedish backpacker and a Danish family of four. OK, you win this round, fate!

Sapa is located high up in the mountains, at an altitude of 1600 metres, and the only way to get there is via a winding mountain road (unless you’re planning to engage in some creative parachuting manoeuvres). The road, in some sections, is just wide enough to accommodate two cars. Our drive up takes almost one hour, during which we admire a beautiful view of mountains submerged in fog and basked in sunrise.

The Swedish backpacker, Jonas Petter, decides to share his (mis)adventures with us. He had a back stomach flu and managed to miss out on a lot of travelling due to being stuck at the hotel, near a toilet. Thankfully, before he begins to give us a detailed account of his symptoms, the father of the Danish family joins in to share their experiences in Cambodia. I try really hard to follow the story, but I’m distracted by the father’s uncanny resemblance to Al Bundy. I half expect him to finish every sentence with “Isn’t that right, Peg?”.

…and that’s Ed O’Neill to YOU!

We arrive at the Fansipan View Hotel, which is so called because its rooms offer views of the Fansipan mountain (I bet that took you by surprise). As soon as the mini-bus stops it is surrounded by a group of Black Hmong women, on a mission to sell their handicraft. Our tour guide tells us that they usually find a “nice person” and follow that person until they wear him/her down. So, essentially, he’s telling us to act like assholes if we’re not interested in handicraft.

We’re served a nice breakfast at the hotel with noodle soup and pancakes. The menu tells us we can choose to have our pancakes with either apple or “pearl”. I’m not sure how pearl pancakes would taste, but I’m sure it’s a crunchy experience. Our room is available early, so we check in at 7:00. We attempt a quick nap prior to our mini-tour. This is successful for Katka, but not so successful for me. There are kids playing outside. Kids can generally be quite loud, but here in Vietnam they come with built-in megaphones. I’ve already discussed the general noise level in Vietnam in an earlier post.

At 9:30 we depart for today’s mild hiking trip to nearby villages. We’re only six people: Katka and I, a Canadian couple (Danni and Amanda) and two local guides. We exchange our experiences and travel plans with the Canadians. It seems we’ll be following in their footsteps – they are heading out to Hue by plane and we’ll be doing the same trip by train in a few days. Danni and Amanda have already had their homestay with the Dzao (Yao) people. They warn us about the dangers of rice wine, which we’re likely to be served during our homestay. Danni apparently had a bit too much while trying to bond with the host family.

Alcohol – real life’s Google Translate!

At the beginning of the trip we’re joined by a group of Black Hmong women. I have a conversation with one of them. Her name is Ping and she’s carrying her 2 month old kid called Phun in a home-made fabric baby carrier on her back. Ping’s English is surprisingly good, especially considering that she has only practised it by talking to tourists.

In the meantime, Katka chats to two other women and receives their approval of me as a boyfriend. That’s because my rugged good looks translate well across all cultures. As we approach a track leading to the village of Cat Cat the Black Hmong leave us. They cannot get in without tickets. They make us promise that if we buy anything it should be from them. Damn, I guess we weren’t convincing enough at being assholes. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 20th – Hanoi

We’re up at 9:30 and go down to catch breakfast before 10:00. Before we’re able to make it to the restaurant we’re ambushed by the receptionist who starts telling us the plan for our evening departure to Sapa. She doesn’t get far before she is interrupted by Mr. Son (hotel manager). There’s some visible tension between them and the woman walks off muttering something in Vietnamese (if we listened closely enough I’m sure we could have learned a few useful swear words). I guess she’s not happy about Mr. Son “stealing” us, now that we’ve reached our VIP status. Mr. Son tells us that everything’s been arranged for our trip. We should be back by 19:00 to be driven to the train station where we’ll take a night train to Lao Cai as part of our journey.

We set out to look for a place to stock up for our homestay with the tribes in Sapa. We’ve done some research on staying with e.g. Hmong and the recommended gear is:

  • Toilet paper (a rare item in most homes of Hmong and other tribes)
  • Token presents for kids (pens, pencils, notepads, candy)
  • A gift for the host family

This kind of diverse shopping list is best served by a supermarket. One problem: there aren’t any supermarkets. It does not seem to be a very common store format around here. There are a couple of specialised stores selling toiletries and similar household items, but that’s not enough to cover the full list. Lonely Planet mentions a proper supermarket called Fivimart. What it doesn’t mention is that Fivimart will only make itself visible during the full moon in uneven months to those whose minds have reached a higher plane of consciousness. It’s entirely impossible to locate and the map provided by Lonely Planet points to a wrong location.

“So, can you see the final destination coordinates, marked with a giant “X”? Well that’s not it!”

After unsuccessful attempts at finding the elusive Fivimart we settle on a smaller hypermarket that has most of what we need (except pens, pencils and notebooks we thought of giving to the Hmong). We get a big and fancy looking box of candy for the host family and a few small packs of candy to hand out to kids. We go back to the hotel to pack and check out. We leave our bags at the reception and go out to catch a few more Hanoi “must sees”.

First stop is Lenin Park. Or, more Vietnamically (that’s totally a word, I swear) – Lê-Nín Park. Vietnamese have a compulsion about splitting multi-syllable words into smaller words or at least hyphenating every syllable, something I’ve already explored in my earlier posts. Lenin Park is clean and rather small. It’s full of people exercising and men playing that same mysterious game with long narrow cards that we’ve seen on our first day.

Right across the street from the park is the Flag Tower of Hanoi. It…towers…over 40 metres above the city. We turn onto a road to the right of the tower and make our way to the Presidential Palace complex. The streets here are much wider than in the Old Quarter and with far fewer people walking them. In fact, the only people around are stone-faced guards standing by giant gates to the Ministry of Defence. Katka wisely decides not to take any pictures here, because our travel plans don’t include a trip to prison on espionage charges.

To really teach you a lesson they use your own camera to take your mugshot

The whole area is filled with imposing government buildings and embassies. There are guards on every corner and guides by every building. What I’m saying is: there are quite a few guards here. Most houses have cars parked by them. Owning a car here is a sign of wealth and bad spacial awareness, since the majority of roads in the Old Quarter can probably accommodate around half a car at best.

We make it to the Presidential Palace, but finding a way inside proves tricky. There are many different gates, but only one of them is the “official” entrance, so it takes us quite some time to walk around and find it. Inside the “park” we find that we’re limited to exploring only a small area of the premises. We can look at the Presidential Palace but not come too close to it.

Essentially, we can only see the areas where Ho Chi Minh used to live. The dude loved the whole “keeping it simple” thing so much that he refused to live in the Palace itself. Instead he built himself a wacky Stilt House and surrounded it with bearded bush-dragons disguised as Santa Clauses:


We explore the area and check out the Stilt House, mango road, an older house where Ho Chi Minh lived earlier, a lake full of carp and a small museum with some Soviet cars Ho owned. “Pimp My Ride” wasn’t that big of a thing back then, so the cars range in colour from grey all the way to black.

Outside of the Presidential Palace enclosure is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Here Ho himself lies in an embalmed state, waiting to spook faint-hearted visitors. We only admired the building from the outside. Not because we’re faint-hearted, but because we’re scared senseless of Ho’s ghost haunting us in the night.

Nearby is the One Pillar Pagoda, which is a small wooden temple built on a single stone pillar. It’s supposed to resemble a lotus blossom, but instead my brain conjures up an image of Baba Yaga’s Hut on chicken legs. I’m crazy like that. Right next to it is the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Again we only explore the building from the outside, since by now our brains are thoroughly ho-chi-minhified (also, totally a word). (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)