Taiwan, Vietnam · 9 Days · 21 Moments · March 2017

Nate's voyage in Hanoi, Vietnam

14 March 2017

While corruption here remains very high, the government continues a policy of deregulation in order to attract foreign investment and maintain a high economic growth rate. The university student perspective we got from our guide was actually the highlight of this day for me. We continued on to see two temples celebrating four kings, that all died violent deaths around 1000 ad. While even the history of this period was interesting, it wasn't pleasant being packed in with so many other tourists. Before returning to Hanoi we went on an hour boat ride on the Tam Coc river, and got to bicycle along trails that cut through the rice fields. Other than feeling like we were in a tourist trap, the activities were nice. Traffic was bad though and it was just too much time spent in the car. After arriving back in Hanoi, Yesi and I got a great dinner recommendation of BBQ pork and crab spring roles. Yesi wasn't feeling well so we called it an early night.
We awoke just before reaching the station in Hanoi, and returned to Hotel Marvellous where we showered and had another excellent breakfast. Within the hour we were picked up by van to a day trip to Tam Coc. During the nearly two hour ride, gave us more background on Vietnam than we were able to learn in all the museums we visited. Notable facts were that in a country of 94 million people, less than 4 million are card carrying members of the Communist party. Communism is still the only party, and only members of the party can cast vote for the countries highest leaders. So for most Vietnamese, politics are unimportant. While the government controls major industries that involve key resources, the rest of the country operates under a capitalist agenda. True communism only lasted for about 10 years in Vietnam. In 1986 the country began to transition to a capitalist economy.
We took a rest while we waited for our taxi, which carried us back to Ethos in Sapa town. For the first time we were able to see all of the construction, development, and resorts that were hidden by the fog when we first arrived in Sapa. After the wonderful experience we had living simply with Ker's family for a couple days all of this seemed very out of place. Seeing all of this made me wonder how the Hmong here will be able to continue as they have. This was the end of our adventure in Sapa and before we knew it we were headed back by van to Lao Cai for dinner and the night train back to Hanoi I'm really glad that we saw the area the way we did and that we were able to contribute to the Hmong people directly. I hope that someday I'm able to return to this area and find that the Hmong are living as they would like.
Soon we found ourselves halfway up the ridge on the opposite side of the valley. The clouds were finally gone and sun began to shine bright. I realized that after being soaked the day before I might end up sun burned by evening. We continued on down the valley, moving further away from Sapa town. We passed many interesting sights, among them was a house that Ker pointed out with leaves covering its door, meaning a shaman had recently been there and no one was permitted to enter. Ker also pointed out a house making the local rice wine that we'd had so much of the day before. We moved along a well used path half way up the valley, stopping for lunch at a guest house. After lunch we continued on for another couple hours getting plenty of sun. We passed a number of small rest stops, a bamboo forest and a beautiful waterfall before arriving at the village that was to be our final stopping point.
We awoke to the sound of a rooster and were up in time to see Ker's mother feed the chickens and pigs with a bundle of corn pulled down from the rafters. Ker's younger brother made a breakfast of rice and egg for his nephew who was soon out the door for school. Yesi held Ker's baby niece and I stirred the green beans over the fire while the women prepared the rest of the breakfast and Ker's father and brother went to work finishing the construction of a new end of the house. After a breakfast that consisted of scrambled eggs, green beans, fried tofu with tomatoes, and stir fried pork, we set out with Ker for another full day of hiking. The rain subsided, but conditions were still muddy and slick, so after walking down from her parents house, we continued down to The Valley floor. Yesi and I never really bothered to ask where we were going or how far, it didn't matter because we were having such a great time and learning so much.

11 March 2017

Down a steep slope through bamboo, rocks and rice terrace, we made it to Ker's parents house before dark, soaking wet. Ker's parents hold special positions in the village, her father is the shaman, and her mother is an herbalist medicine woman. They were kind, opened their home to use and let us help them prepare another great evening meal. After dinner we spoke with Ker about the role of her father as shaman and her mother as herbalist. She shared so much with us describing he alter in their home and it was just an incredible insight into their culture. They pass everything down through spoken language, and she was very good at sharing a wealth of knowledge. Afterward, we sat around an open fire in the floor with the family watched Hmong music videos on the family's first TV, purchased just a week ago. The whole thing was wonderful and surreal. We were exhausted and slept wonderfully on a bamboo bed.
The guys kept drinking as we sat around the table and Yesi true to form became a tipsy chatterbox. She has a way of connecting with people that I can only admire sometimes. Despite a huge language barrier we bonded over drinks, and began shouting each other's names and the names of everything on the table and in the room until they knew the English name and we the Hmong. And that's how we learned a little of a language that even few Vietnamese speak. We had an excellent time, and finally we had to leave before it got dark. The feast and rice wine were both finished. Ker's extended family headed back to their home an hour away and us on to her parents, a two hour walk down the ridge. Of course this is when the rain started and the walking was at its most difficult with clay and mud as slick as ice.
Eight of us sat around the table for a feast. There was fresh chicken and pork mixed with chayote and onions. Fried tofu in tomato sauce, sautéed green beans, and a spinach in garlic dish. We dipped all of it in a homemade chili sauce that was the bomb, and chased it with rice wine (happy water) from the village. You cheers, you eat, cheers again, eat and cheers some more. My kind of people. Only the men drank, Yesi joined of course. Ker said the village rice wine is between 20-25% and I've heard it can be even more. It is a smooth clear distilled spirit and though it was very good, it felt like all of 20%. Yesi and I went shot for shot for a while until finally we yielded Ker's warnings, because we still had a steep hike ahead.
Learning English allowed her to guide, which allows her to provide for her family. Ker is as clever as she is friendly and she even has friends from Spain and Germany and knows a few phrases of each. She was a wealth of knowledge about the area, peoples, plants and animals. I won't try to describe all we learned but maybe the biggest lesson is how friendly clever people can be so misunderstood. We walked on to her house for miles in a thick fog, knowing the rice terraces surrounded us but unable to see them. Along the way we learned about the indigo plants along the road and always up we climbed. Finally after hiking all morning, we reached Ker's house, which is located at the very top of the highest ridge of the valley. There her husband was already preparing our meal over and open fire. Their two children and some extended family were also there waiting for us. Though we just came off a hike, I still say that our lunch there was as good a meal as we've had in Vietnam.
Ker's husband met us at the market on motorbike and strapped her large basket on his bike. Since we had come for the trek, we took a ten minute taxi before setting out after him. The walk was all uphill, from the Valley floor where the land is flat and the Vietnamese live, up into the rice terraces occupied by the Black Hmong and Red Zao ethnic minorities. We learned that there has been and still is tension between the Hmong and the Vietnamese. The Hmong who sided with the Americans during the war, were ignored and suffered the prejudice of the Vietnamese after it ended. Propaganda teaches that they are an ignorant backwards people. The Hmong have their own spoken language, no written language, and only speak their native tongue. Only in the last 15 years or so have the Vietnamese provided schools for the Ethnic minorities in and around Sapa. Our guide Ker was an exception, she learned English in the market where local women go to sell. She learned only by listening.
On top of that our guide, Ker was a tiny little thing, brightly dressed like she was dressed ready for a gathering in town with purple rubber rain boots that hardly looked sturdy. Now I know that she always wears the traditional dress of the Black Hmong (clothes she made), and that those tiny purple rain boots rarely slip, and constantly have to slow down for you to keep up. She can and does walk for days at a time. Yesi and I set out with Ker in very foggy conditions and walked to the Sapa market where we purchased food for our lunch. We let Ker do the shopping from her favorite vendors and we just took it all in. There were pigs still in the process of being butchered, live fish, freshly plucked chickens, and even dog. Tofu is made fresh in the market and was still warm and steaming in the cool morning air.
Days 4 - Hmong Homestay in Sapa The King Express overnight train was a fun experience for us and it arrived in Lou caí at 6am, just as it was getting light. From Lao Caí station, we jumped in a van that drove us a couple hours to Ethos in Sapa town (our trekking company) the entire drive was a winding road through fog and pouring rain with almost zero visibility. We reached Sapa without seeing any of the town or countryside, and were welcomed in at Ethos for hot showers and breakfast. There we learned that we might be out of luck due to the weather. However, after an hour or so the rain subsided a bit, the guides arrived and we Ethos organized routes that might be less treacherous given the weather. I didn't think much of it at the time, because we had good shoes and are happy to hike in the rain. What I didn't know is how steep some of the trails are, and that the clay is as slick as ice when wet.

9 March 2017

Between museum visits we signed ourselves up for a massage, were caught in a torrential downpour which we passed by playing cards with Bia Hoi. We had an excellent dish of Cha Ca and street food dinner. We bounced between cafe's and continued To enjoy the streets.
Day 3 - Communist History Determined to learn more about the history and culture of our surroundings, Yesi and I set out to see a couple recommended museums. We visited the Vietnam Military Museum and the National History Museum. After learning a bit more about Vietnam's history, it shouldn't have been surprising that there was a lot of overlap between the two. Key takeaways: 1) Vietnam has always been fighting for its independence (from the Chinese, Mongols, Spanish, French, Japanese, and Americans 2) It has always been the underdog and militarily outmatched 3) It has always resisted rule, eventually overthrowing rule, but adopting a few things along the way Although it was strange to see the United States referred to as the enemy, and interesting to see history written through a pro Communist lens, both museums were more a collection of artifacts (documents, blades and guns) than centers for information.

8 March 2017

I'm sure it can be frustrating too, but when your only job is to be a part of it, it's awesome. I admire the freedom that comes with a lack of rules. Everyone has the freedom to make bad decisions, and we see that they do, constantly. I bet it gets ugly when there's an accident, but we haven't seen one yet. The other side of the coin, is that here you don't have a choice but to join the crazy.
The rest of our day was dedicated to exploring the streets of Hanoi. We have yet to take a taxi, instead we've been criss-crossing the city on foot through alleys and side streets. It takes a couple hours of walking to get past the sensory overload, the fear of oncoming scooters and the thick humid air filled with exhaust. Once you settle in though, every winding alley is filled with new sights and sounds. The people are friendly and the whole place just feels alive. Everyone is hustling about their business, eating, selling or just people watching. Many streets are so packed that there's nowhere to even park scooters. Occasionally the honking of horns gets so crazy that it gets comical. It's a chaos that gives the city a charm that I didn't expect to enjoy this much.
After the Mausoleum we paid a short visit to the Ho Chi Minh Museum, where history was laid out somewhat differently than I've read in Western books. The artifacts of the museum were less interesting to me than the communist symbolism, and the people watching. Growing up on a brand of American history, its strange to see people eager to take photos with statues holding communist flags, stars, etc. Reading some of the plaques though I understand why. Ho Chi Minh is a hero here, and this is an era of history I'd like to learn more about.
Day 2 - Scooter City Our first full day in Hanoi started off with the usual tourist itinerary of trying to see the sights and learn something new. We visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum, which were both worth seeing. The Mausoleum being a communist era building that, houses the body of former President Ho Chi Minh. In a long procession of visitors, we slowly filed into the building surrounded by guards. The whole experience is intended to be, reverent, impressive and foreboding. As a procession, we walked past the glass tomb containing Uncle Ho's body. Yesi and I not having read ahead in the guidebook, didn't realize exactly what would be on display. Yesi couldn't believe it was his actual body. I felt like I was in the Golden Eye N64 temple complex.

7 March 2017

We walked the streets for 6 hours and during our first evening in Hanoi here's what we found. 1) The food is better than I could have imagined 2) Tiger Crystal beer is crap, Hanoi beer is good, Bai Hoi is better 3) A 10,000 VND bill looks like a lot of money, but is worth 50 cents 4) Food and drink can be found super cheap but everyone's trying to get you to pay too much 5) Not getting hit by a motor scooter is a full time job
Day 1 - We made it! Finally, almost exactly 24 hours after we left our house in Seattle we arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam. The travel experience itself wasn't bad, just incredibly disorienting. Somehow I fell asleep six times, and had five small meals split between two flights over the course of just 24 hours. When I ordered pork dumpling soup during our layover in Taipei I got a beer to go with it and then felt judged realizing it was only 6am. Then it got stranger. In our jet lagged, disoriented state, Yesi and I were picked up from a modern Hanoi airport much like LAX and dropped into the busiest bustling and motorized mass of humanity that I could have ever imagined. We were checked into our Marvellous Hotel and wandering the streets by 2pm. Our goals were simple; find beers, get into vacation mode, and stay awake late enough to get adjusted to the local time.

6 March 2017