Impressions of North Vietnam – Part 1

Impressions of North Vietnam – Part 1

As I’m writing this blog, Sophie and I have just come back from a twelve-day Hanoi – Hanoi round trip. Specifically, we toured northern Vietnam with guide Asu from travel agency ‘Ethnic Travel’. We stayed in homestays with local families and explored mountains, rice terraces, bamboo forests, waterfalls, city life and beaches.

In this blog in two parts, I’ll highlight some of my personal day-to-day insights. Please don’t read it as my comprehensive travel diary. I’m not going to share hidden gems and the best places to eat. This is just stuff that stuck with me and therefore ended up in my little notebook. Underlying, I suppose, was my understandable reflex to compare Vietnam to the Philippines. So you will read a bit about that as well.

Pictures all mine and shot with my Motorola mobile phone! Who needs a ‘real’ camera these days anyways…

Day #1 – Hanoi is hot

We arrive in and leave Hanoi on the same day. Our hotel-arranged driver picks us up from the airport at 1 am. It’s a thirty-minute drive to our city center hotel. We start off on a wide, new highway. As we gradually enter downtown the streets narrow. A nightly flower market is bustling. Intersections with three, four, five small streets leading to and from them become the norm. Motorbikes flash by occasionally. Peanuts compared to the traffic mayhem we’ll experience the second time around arriving in Hanoi.

In the morning we leave breakfast to the last possible minute. The buffet is so elaborate, our ‘food guide’ explains the options to us. We most enjoy the native plums and the passion fruit that, lucky for us, is added to the buffet just before we had decided to leave.

Temple of Literature, Hanoi.

Today will be a day of walking: the Old Town, Van Lake, Temple of Literature and several other sights of interest. We sample different street food dishes, including salty and sweet donuts, and, of course, bánh mì. It’s so delicious, we each have two.

We take a detour back to our hotel. Walking along a boulevard we pass by several government buildings and a military complex. On display outside are various old military vehicles and airplanes. The notice boards accompanying some of them mention the number of U.S. planes or soldiers they shot down during the ‘War Against the Americans to Save the Nation’ in the 1960s and 70s. You don’t read about that in your Westernized school books.

Sophie and me on the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai.

At 7 pm we report at the Ethnic Travel head office where I take a quick shower. It was an extremely hot and humid day in Hanoi. It almost made me long for Davao’s slightly more dry heat. We transfer to the station and board the sleeper train for an eight-hour trip heading north to Lao Cai. Before departure, vendors knock on the windows to try and push their products. Together with the French couple who we’re sharing the cabin with, we settle in for what turns out to be a bumpy but otherwise problem free night.

Having recently watched the 2017 film adaption of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, thoughts about a similar whodunit scenario unfolding on our train enter my mind. I decide that I hate Hollywood for what it does to my ability to have original fantasies.

Day #2 – Sapa is guapa

Again, another smooth pick-up. This time at Lao Cai train station. Grey skies. The seven European tourists in the minivan are all quite. The lack of sleep the night before might have something to do with that. We climb to Sapa, situated at an altitude of 1600 meter above sea level. Sapa is a fairly touristy mountain town and the beating heart of exploration in northern Vietnam.

Sophie with ‘Mama Sese’ of the Black Hmong ethnic minority on our first day of hiking in the Sapa region.

The air is brisk and cool, although later in the day when we’re hiking the sun beats down with great force. Everywhere it’s rice terraces draped on mountain slopes. Our guide explains the heavy manual labor that’s required to cut out and build the terraces. And then it’s planting, burning the first plants, planting again, harvesting, and repeat.

The hike is long and at times slippery, but we take breaks and we get help from a few women who belong to the local Black Hmong ethnic minority. Gorgeous views abound. We encounter some other tourists, but definitely not busloads of them. At one point, a small boy runs up to me, pulls my arm, and repeats a word I don’t understand. Turns out he wants one of the mangosteen fruits I’m carrying in a small plastic bag.

Views of the valley on our first day of hiking in the Sapa region.

We arrive at the homestay – our guide’s family home in the small village of Ta Van – in the late afternoon. There are six or seven double beds in the attic, separated by curtains. The balcony offers amazing views of the valley. In the kitchen something’s brewing over an open fire. Smoke fills up the stone wall building. Sophie and I help make the spring rolls for dinner. After we’ve finished the food, rice wine appears on the table. We go to bed early; there’s more hiking tomorrow. The three Italian high school friends from Bologna stay out late, playing cards and finishing the ‘saké’ that was left in the bottle.

Day #3 – Sapa is still guapa

Another day, another hike. We start the day right with delicious pancakes and honey for breakfast. Today’s walk will include two highlights: trekking through thick bamboo forests and waterfall swimming. It’s a cloudy day, but the sun comes out in full force around twelve noon. We pass by two farmers taking a break from herding their two buffalo. The animals are locking horns in a playful battle. The two men seem unimpressed.

Coming down from the hill we pass through a village with Red Dao women. Most of them have shaved their eyebrows and head to indicate they are the main food providers. Hence, they have to be ‘clean’.

Sophie and me with our guide Lan after our third and last day of hiking in the Sapa region.

Our guide Lan belongs to the Black Hmong. She tells us she married late, at age twenty-one. She’s now thirty-five, but she has a thirty-six year old friend who’s already a grandmother. Lan explains that as a young girl if you don’t find your own partner, at some point a man will come by your house to ‘fetch’ you to be his bride. The girls are usually fifteen or sixteen when that happens. More often than not, the parents will consent. Lan is glad this fate didn’t befall her.

Lan knows a lot about native medicine, most of which grows basically everywhere, and she points out some of the plants to us, such as cardamom. Women from her tribe have a particularly creative cure for headaches. They use a small needle to draw a tiny bit of blood from their forehead. They then place a buffalo horn on the spot they pricked after which someone sucks the air in through the horn, creating something of a vacuum. This leaves a red, round mark that is visible for about a week. According to Lan it’s a full proof way to get rid of your headaches.

Day #4 – Mountains no more

A short one today to finish our hiking adventures in the Sapa region. Last night’s heavy rain has made the paths quite muddy and slippery. We walk through small villages; authentic communities with animals everywhere. Bamboo shoots are resting on the ground to dry. We see town folk milling rice and weaving hemp. There are big vats of indigo waiting to be used to dye hemp clothing.

This high school football stadium in Mu Can Chai was severely damaged in last year’s flash floods.

Our pick-up takes us back to touristy Sapa for a nice lunch. From this point onward, Asu will be our guide and Ming our driver. We set course for Mu Can Chai, a one hundred kilometer drive. We descend to about 1000 meter above sea level and stop in a small city for a wander around the market. Most of the fruits and vegetables I recognize from the Bankerohan market in Davao. In a small bar I have an authentic Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk at the bottom.

Asu shows us where he went to high school. The football stadium next door was severely damaged after flash floods last year. Same goes for the primary school. The playground is now the town’s newest outdoor food market.

Day #5 – Food on the floor

The next day we walk from our homestay over paved roads passing rice fields to a small Black Hmong village up the hill. I watch a boy riding his makeshift wooden skateboard down a short steep road. Three boys, younger still, are sitting hunched together each proudly holding large brown beetles tied to a piece of string. Asu tells me they make the insects fight each other. From the protective, close to their chest kind of way they are holding them I somehow think these kids would never risk losing their precious pets.

Asu invited us for lunch at his family home. From left: Ming (driver), Asu, and Asu’s father.

We take a drive to Asu’s family home where we meet his father and two younger siblings. They have prepared local dishes for us to try. Everything is served on the floor. We squat down around the many small plates and bowls. There’s rice from the family’s own field, fishes from the same field, a blood and meat paste, cabbage in water, duck from their own duck pond, and the list goes on. The meal is accompanied by no less than five rounds of rice wine shots.

Slightly tipsy, we are shown around the premises. It’s a bit messy, but functional. Most rooms are large but scarcely furnished. In the main house, I only see one bed. There are also several small outbuildings. Asu tells us he sleeps on the roof when he visits.

Day #6 – In good hands

We start the day with our first bike trip. Afterwards we visit a massage parlor for a thorough Thai massage. Our muscles are still a bit sore from hiking in Sapa. My masseuse is tiny and Sophie regularly cry-laughs as the lady tries to stretch and bend my – by comparison – giant-like arms and legs.

First bike ride through the rice fields of Mu Can Chai.

It’s a scenic drive to our next destination, the city of Phu Yen. We take a stroll around the market and try some miniature apples that turn out to be extremely sour. I buy a big juicy green orange to try and counter the bitterness. Oranges are abundantly available in this region. There’s not enough water here to grow rice, so people turn to other crops and fruits.

On the way to our hotel we reciprocate many “hellos” from young passersby. I kind of prefer their greeting to the “Hey Joe!” I get a lot in Davao. The mattress in our enormous hotel room is, as always, hard as a rock. For a second I feel like I’m back on the massage table. Alas, it’s my bed.

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