Sopped in in Sapa and Too Much Time in a City Can Be Hanoi-ing”: Jan. 24-31.

Note:  As you might know, we are way behind on our blog, so I just wrote one long entry on our final week in Vietnam.  That way, we can at least have the satisfaction of being on the same continent as we are blogging about in our next entry.

After several days touring the extraordinary Halong Bay, it was back to Hanoi for the Raffs.  Almost everything was still closed for Tet, though, so we were limited in our sightseeing–two days in Hanoi so far, and we hadn’t seen much.  It did give us a chance to drink lots of coffee (although by afternoon, tourist coffee shops were standing room only simply because they were open), meet up with a cool couple from Texas and Oklahoma who had been travelling for 9 months, and watch the uber-classic, “Kindergarten Cop” before checking out of our hotel.

The best thing we did, however, was to walk over to Hoam Kiem Lake, sort of the center of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.  The whole lake was decked out with elaborate floral arrangements for Tet, and there were tons of Vietnamese people there celebrating with their families.  A giant sea turtle is said to have had something to do with the lake’s origins, according to legend, and it really does contain large turtles (we saw none).  The landmark Tortoise Tower (so maybe the lake contains tortoises…I’m not sure) floated in the middle of the lake, surrounded by huge helium balloons.  Hanoi’s Vietnamese people always seem to be sharply dressed, and they were in their absolute best that day.

We braved the heavy crowds at the lake to visit the popular Ngoc Son Temple, which is reached by a footbridge from the shore.  There is a giant embalmed turtle there, but it was of little interest compared to the vigor of the busy temple today.  The temple was piled to the ceiling with offerings of fruit, money, moon pies (Southeast Asians love these!), and booze.  People shuffled shoulder to shoulder to the front of the shrine in order to light incense and pray.  Outside, some women in colorful silk robes were dancing an incense ceremony to the beat of drums.  It was interesting to be a stranger in this crowd; I had no idea what was going on, but I liked it nonetheless.

That night, we hopped on the night train for the long journey up to Sapa, a mountain village town near the Chinese border.  There were a lot of Chinese folks travelling home after celebrating Tet with relatives in Vietnam.  One very nice man, who was also pretty bombed, wished us a “Happy New Year” and uncorked a bottle of Vietnamese Dalat wine, shaking it up and pretending it was champagne.  He gave each of a swig in a toast, took one himself, then gave us each a moon pie because “he loved Americans and Barrack Obama.”  I love meeting people on trains; they are much better built for socializing then buses or planes.

The train took us to the border town of Lo Cao, and we had to take a shuttle from there to Sapa.  As usual, we arrived well before dawn and wandered the streets in search of an open hotel.  We did find the one where we wanted to stay, but it wasn’t open yet, so we had breakfast at 5 AM simply to get out of the cold in the one open establishment in town (Pho for breakfast is very good, by the way).

As I said, it was extremely cold up in Sapa, and we pulled out our puffies, long johns, and wool hats for the first time in months.  The entire town was so sopped in with clouds that the Mountain View Inn had no mountain view at all, but they did have an electric blanket and a space heater.  Still tired after fitful sleep on the train, we turned both on high and took a nap (exciting blog so far, yeah?).

The weather was just as bad when we awoke, and it stayed that way for the next day as well…our whole interest in coming up here was to trek, but the freezing cold and rainy weather ensured that we would only see a panorama of fog, so we hung close to town.  By the end of the day, our journals were caught up, our books were read, part of our Australia adventure was planned, and our rummy competition had progressed a great deal.  We did venture out to the shops, which were okay but also all very similar to one another.  Most of the crafts that are supposed to be unique to the area were also available in Hanoi, so it wasn’t a shopping experience that was that thrilling considering all we had done our first day in Hanoi was shop.  I will say, however, that the food in Sapa is excellent, and we enjoyed Vietnamese, Italian, and Indian food that were all as good as anything we had eaten since Thailand.

We actually tried to get a train ticket back to Hanoi the next day, but it didn’t happen, so we made the best of things.  I enjoyed a Skype phone call home to my parents (Sarah had had the pleasure of wishing her Grandma a happy birthday from Vietnam the night before!) before we hiked a couple of kilometers down to nearby Cat Cat Village.

While we still couldn’t see beyond 15 feet in front of us, we managed to make it there without being hit by any motorbikes, but the local women who sell things are very aggressive (nice but persistant) and followed us almost the full 3 kilometers trying to get us to buy their products.  The area was full of flooded tiered rice paddies and small wooden huts.  Pigs, dogs, and hens forged for food on the side of the road.  It sort of reminded us of small villages along our trek in Nepal, which was a nice bit of nostalgia for us.  The most interesting part was their watering system, in which a levered trough fills up before tipping over and dumping water to a lower trough until it hits ground level–sort of like how Peewee Herman made his breakfast in the beginning of his big adventure.  Seriously, though, it was really cool.

Normally, paying the admission fee to visit this town would allow you to see the Hmong villagers demonstrating traditional dance and music or plying their trades–weaving, carving, working with metal, etc., but today, only the shops were open.  In some ways, Tet had been one of the best things that we could experience in our time in Vietnam,  but in others, it made it seem like we spent four amazing days in Halong Bay and a week and a half shopping.  They made some nice scarves and little carvings, but neither Sarah nor I care much about shopping.  It was a nice hike out of the village, though, as we passed a pretty waterfall and creek.  We found ourselves wanting to give the Sapa area the benefit of the doubt, but man, the weather was killing us up here!


Things improved dramatically on our final day in Sapa, however!  We awoke to the sunny skies and our first wonderful mountain view from our room at the Mountain View Hotel.  The lovely green forested mountains seemed to roll on forever, and the sun finally beat out the bone-chilling cold!

One of the most popular places in Sapa is Ham Rong Park; we spent a very enjoyable morning here, along with practically everyone else in the town, enjoying the splendid weather.  The park was full of flower gardens, statues of the Chinese zodiac–for some reason, some were represented by American cartoon characters, and amazing views of Fanispan Mountain (largest in Vietnam), the town itself, and the terraced rice paddies all over the hills.  We also got to enjoy a traditional dance and music demonstration by several young artists; it was very nice, and my favorite was a beautiful melody played on a bamboo flute by a young man who also sang pretty well. Many of the local Hmong people were enjoying the park as well; it was fun to see the mix of Chinese and Vietnamese tourists, the locals decked out in traditional black garb sewn with colorful beaded adornments, and six white people (including us) enjoying the weather.  It’s amazing what a little sun can do for a town’s, or at least a grumpy American tourist’s, spirit!  Sapa, indeed, could live up to it’s reputation as a hiker’s paradise, I think, when the weather was better.

That evening, we took a sleeping bus back to Hanoi.  According to Lonely Planet, you are an idiot if you choose the bus over the train for this curvy roller-coaster of a route, but I thought that it was a really interesting way to travel…then again, I have been accused of idiocy from time to time.  Where most buses are designed in a 2X2 format, this bus had three narrow rows of bunk beds that allowed most people to stretch out fully, and even I fit reasonably well.  Of course, as usual, the only hackingly sick plague victim on the bus was bunking right next to me…I must be either a carrier or have total immunity to 99 of the top 100 plagues in the world by the time I end this trip; it may be years before the Red Cross comes courting these AB+ veins again!

We had absolutely no idea which bus station we were in when we arrived in Hanoi–about an hour before dawn–because not many tourists ride the bus here, so there are no signs in English.  Luckily, a really nice woman helped us out and even called us a cab.  A little while later, we were napping in the now familiar hotel we seemed to visit every few days in Hanoi.

The good news was that basically everything in the city was open again; while this meant risking sure death every time we tried to cross the psychotic motorbike gang-infested streets, we finally got to see some of Hanoi’s sights.

Our first stop was the very interesting Women’s Museum. The first two floors were focused mostly on gender roles in terms of marriage and motherhood, with many written and visual examples of wedding ceremonies, birthing traditions, and general lifestyles for the women of many of the tribes–for the most part, what I got from it is that Vietnam has a ton of tribal diversity with generally similar expectations but quite different specific traditions between them. The third floor was quite interesting as well; for one thing, women have been active soldiers in just about every revolution or war in which Vietnam has been involved with throughout modern times.

As an American in a foreign propaganda museum for the first time, it was even more interesting, however, to read descriptions of the Vietnam War that offer no hint of a civil conflict between North and South; instead, the women were honored for helping to “liberate” the Southern Vietnamese from the American “occupation.” While I know that Vietnam was far from a simple issue, I am fairly sure that there was more than a farmer or two from the South doing a bit more than selling rice to Americans at competitive market prices! It was surprisingly uncomfortable to be standing there reading these boards, but I really did enjoy the museum, and it is better to be exposed to that kind of stuff if you are trying to understand a people.

We went in search of crickets for dinner, but apparently there had been a mad rush on them during lunch, and locusts were out of season (I’m not kidding), so we settled for some spicy buffalo and rice wine, which was really strong and surprisingly sweet, similar to saki but not the same…maybe a cross between saki and brandy. I bet it would have gone well with crickets! I think we may have missed out on the cool insect snacks in Asia–Sarah was too sick to her stomach to try spiders in Cambodia, and well, the crickets are just too damn popular here; we can’t exactly just pick something off the ground and sample it when we get to Australia…everything smaller than a kangaroo there will kill you.

We actually spent our second to last day in Vietnam on a one day group tour outside of Hanoi; the city of Ninh Binh is about two hours away from Hanoi and was once the capital of Vietnam. The roads were surprisingly clear because the date was the 7th of the lunar month, and most people believed that it was an unlucky date to embark on a journey (they avoid returning on the 3rd of the month). The area around Ninh Binh and the Tam Coc River is known as “the Halong Bay of the Land” because of all the limestone cliffs; we found it to be very nice indeed.


After spending an hour checking out a couple of ancient temples, which looked a lot like the other Chinese-style temples we had seen in Vietnam but were historically significant since it was the actual site where the King had ordered the capital built, we moved on to exploring the Tam Coc. This meant taking a very enjoyable rowboat ride piloted by a dad and his young son. The boy took his cue as “cute tip-getter,” sitting beside me with a little oar to “help” paddle. He was a nice kid, though, and he kept stealing glances at me when he thought I wasn’t looking and laughed when I pointed at him and flexed my bicep to show him rowing would make him strong…come to think of it, I bet he was just laughing at my pipe cleaner arms…little brat! J

 The ride was sort of a mix between amazing cliffs and caves that you ride through right on the water, but it was a bit marred by the times that the driver rowed us over to boats of women selling stuff and also his constant reminders that we needed to tip him. Other groups, we discovered on returning, had it worse than us in these regards, but nothing could take away too much from the majestic serenity of each beautiful limestone cliff eclipsing into layer after layer of more beautiful limestone cliffs.

The last activity, though, might have been my favorite; we jumped out of the boat and onto some bicycles for a tour of the rice paddies. Along the way, we saw people plowing the flooded paddies with a simple wooden plank that was like a cross between a rake and a ho (man, that sounds like it has the makings of a great joke!). The village and the fields were very simple, but they were located in an extraordinarily beautiful setting. We even had a little extra fun, going muddin’ on a slippery trail through the rice fields on the way back to town. What a fun day, and a nice diversion from the city!

Our final day in Hanoi was spent somewhere between the urge to see more and the feeling that it was time for us to go. Sarah and I just aren’t city people, and we had been in Hanoi for a third of our 2 weeks in Vietnam. We also had probably seen over 100 temples during our 4 months in Asia and eaten a ton of rice and noodles; it had been awesome, but it was time to move on, and it was also time for a cheeseburger!

The one thing that we were both really curious about still was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where you can actually view the embalmed Uncle Ho. Ironically, he had requested to be cremated shortly before his death (that is, he requested it shortly before; he had no intention to be cremated prematurely…), but it is a communist nation, and his personal preference was ignored. When we got there, however, it was closed. We did get to check out the sort of compound around the mausoleum, including the stilt house where he reportedly once lived.

While we were there, we visited one of the strangest museums that we have seen during our travels. The Ho Chi Minh Museum looked innocent enough on its ground floor, with a great photo exhibition of Vietnam’s progress over the past 25 years (since adopting a market economy); they have really come a long way, and it is evident even in simple things such as the number of paved roads and suspension bridges that have been built in the past 10 years. The rest of the museum, however, made little sense to us; each exhibit was in some way a tribute to the work of Uncle Ho, but all meanings were meant to be expressed through symbolic art. Maybe it was because we were outsiders, but we weren’t seeing it. It was also weird, although understandable, to see American war relics presented as trophies; the one thing that did get me, though, was an explanation that described Vietnam’s contributions to world freedom (if you try to see it from their viewpoint of self-government, I guess I could see it) and–jaw-dropingly–democracy! By definition, communism is not democratic, right?

The final temple that we visited was the Temple of Literature. Built in the 11th century, this was the site of Vietnam’s first university. Again, our main interest by this time in our temple touring was not in the design but the historic note, although the temple is surrounded by several lovely courtyards and a pretty reflecting pool. Stone turtles line the sidewalls of each courtyard; each turtle is inscribed with the names of ancient scholars who had passed the royal exams–a big deal was made about this on the explanatory notes; I assume that passing the exam opened up the best opportunities, or maybe they got a coupon for a free buffet dinner from the King, but the notes only offered “whats”…no “whys” or “hows”…maybe the most frustrating part of sightseeing in the Asian countries we’ve visited. Still, they used turtles as the symbol of earth, and I do like me some turtles.

Our final night in Vietnam was a great way to end our time here; we began with a cyclo (bicycle taxi) ride to a Bia Hoi (draught beer) stand to have the world’s cheapest beer. There we sat in tiny lawn chairs at a sidewalk stand beside a keg, and enjoyed surprisingly decent draught beer at 5,000 duong, or a quarter a pop…or beer, as the case seemed to be.

The best part of the night, however, was watching a water puppetry show. The stage looked like an old house on stilts set right over the water. Water puppetry originated in Northern Vietnam over 1,000 years ago. The puppets were all quite large and colorful and seemed to dance on top of the water. They were attached to wooden poles–sort of like broom handles–controlled from behind the stage, and some had strings attached to their arms to help create a twisting motion. Music and singing accompanied each act, and the show told the story of Vietnam’s early history (some mythical and some real). While I couldn’t understand all of the specifics, it was fun to watch the human, fish, and dragon characters dance upon the water, and it was one of my favorite experiences in Hanoi.

If you ever want to hear a classic Raffter Rant (best told at the Lucky Lab), ask me sometime about the exercise in futility that is trying to navigate Hanoi’s airport, but I have rambled along enough in this entry. I have already mentioned that we were ready to move on from Asia to Australia. I think that Sarah and I sort of wondered how our experience would have been different if we hadn’t arrived during Tet, which was great to observe but also greatly limited our options in traveling, or if we had come here at the beginning of our four months in Asia instead of the end, or maybe if we had come here during a month where the weather would be better. I can definitely say that Halong Bay and the Tam Coc are as beautiful as anywhere else in the world, and I really did enjoy experiencing the bustle of Hanoi, but four months had been a long time, and it was time to move “Down Under,” somewhere we both had always dreamed of visiting.



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3 Responses to Sopped in in Sapa and Too Much Time in a City Can Be Hanoi-ing”: Jan. 24-31.

  1. Dad says:

    I can understand the feeling of getting to the next place/step. Also the similarity in then Asian countries probably added to it. Please keeping blogging – I know it it time consuming and tiring, but we all love it and when your old you will enjoy re-reading it and relieving the journey.

    Looking for to the next part along with you.

  2. Courtney says:

    I know it’s ridiculous, but I kept wondering if you were going to run into Forest Gump… Scooby Doo, yes, but Forrest, no? Dis-a-pointed 🙂

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