Last week I shot up to Hanoi to see a bit of Northern Vietnam and to spend one last jaunt with the Britons. My stomach seemed to be fine on the train but as soon as I hopped into my shuttle to the hotel, things were feeling 'funny'. Thankfully, my driver had to stop for gas. When you gotta go, you gotta go... even if it's one of the worst squat toilets you've ever encountered (though the door locked which was nice). It's times like these that I am pleased that I carry a spare roll of toilet paper and a pack of anti-bac wipes.
The architecture coming into Hanoi was interesting. Narrow buildings, three to four floors high with French colonial (?) facades. Basically tall buildings with fancy columned and balconied fronts and plain sides. Even the newer buildings used this style. Unfortunately, I wasn't in the snapping from a car window mood so I don't have any photos of this.
I checked into the Pacific Hotel off of Cua Nam, a street where one of the oldest Hanoi markets used to exist (I recently read that many of the markets in Vietnam are being demolished and replaced with modern supermarkets as land prices start to rise... culture destroyed in the name of profits). I chose this place mostly for the free internet access. The girls showed up in the afternoon and we started researching tours. Carlien and I booked all of our arrangements at the Pacific's travel services desk, saving us a trip to Sinh Cafe. We took in a Vietnamese water puppetry show in the evening. Imagine a pool of water in a small theater and two foot tall wooden puppets dancing, spitting, swimming, and splashing around in front of you. A traditional Vietnamese band performs and sings off to the side. The puppeteers operate all of the characters from behind a bamboo screen, waist deep in water. It's pretty fun but entirely too loud for my throbbing head. Our last minute seats placed us next to the speakers.
Hanoi is a busy little city, zooming with motorbikes, and crowded with market stalls and merchants. Walks around the lake are nice with young and old Vietnamese couples canoodling and contemplating on benches along the water. You can still get a feel for what it may have been like under France's influence if you squint your eyes and walk around the historical buildings in the Old Quarter.
For lunch the next day, we ate at Koto which runs a program to help less fortunate Vietnamese youth by training them how to work in fine dining. The training helps them earn jobs at some of the leading restaurants in the country. The food was pretty decent and the bathroom immaculate :)
Afterwards, we got blatantly ripped off taking the taxi to the Museum of Ethnology. Either the driver drove us twice as far or his meter was crooked. My mom had warned me that Hanoi was 'difficult' like this. But we found the museum and wandered around for a few hours learning about the different minority groups that live in the country (it was a nice primer on the people we would meet the next day in Sapa). Outside we climbed into traditional houses of minority peoples. To offset our losses in the taxi, we hopped the cheap bus back to town. It must be pretty uncommon for three 'white' looking people to be taking the bus in that part of town because everyone stared as us as they rode past the bus stop on their motorbikes. Granted, we were staring right back.
In the evening we caught a train to Lao Cai, arriving at 5:30am to catch a bus that shuttled us up to Sapa town. There we showered up and took a nap on a bed with no mattress before meeting Duc, our mountain guide. We trekked for five hours through rain and mud. Hmong girls walked along with us, helping us negotiate slippery rice terrace walls (see the video), and steep mountain paths. At the end of our trek, the girls turn around and ask you to by embroidered wallets, bracelets, and other handicrafts. "You buy from me, please. You buy something. I walk with you, you buy from me." No guilt trip there. The problem was, I'd only brought one pair of pants and one pair of Geox walking shoes. Both were now soaked and covered in mud. All I needed from these girls were boots or trousers.
We stayed at a Dzao family's house for our mountain home stay. The family was made up of two grandparents, a couple, and their three kids- including a cute little one year old. We spent about four hours straight, huddled around a bowl of charcoal. It was raining outside and getting chilly inside. As we sat, Hmong women would come to the door to try to sell us things. I jokingly mentioned wanting their rain boots and one seemed to be ready to sell. I told her no thank you and mentioned trousers. To our surprise, they had trousers! Hemp pants, hand made and died in indigo. I debated for a bit and decided to buy them. Very warm and comfy. At dinner, the family prepared a nice little feast and shared shots of "happy water". I explained to the guide that my stomach wasn't in good shape so the host spared us from a rough night of "Happy Water to you!" silliness. Exhausted from our trek, we slept early under really warm blankets in a sort of loft area upstairs.
The second day of trekking was shorter but twice as difficult. The rains had stopped but the paths were steeper and muddier. My feet slipped ankle deep into rice paddies and I slid around precariously through bamboo forests where leeches apparently lived (didn't spot any unfortunately). I couldn't believe the paths we were taking. My shoes were entirely ineffective in the mud. I wasn't walking anymore, just sliding. I refused the help of the mountain girls as they just made me more nervous. At one point, my flailing arm smacked one right on the forehead. I'd warned her not to stand so close!
The hardest and most ridiculous bit was a muddy path that ran along a water fall. There was zero traction between me and the ground. I cut my hands frantically grabbing the growth on the mountain side to keep me from sliding into rocks. Finally, with everything covered in mud anyway, I just crouched down and slid several feet at a time down the path while the locals laughed at me from the bottom. In the end, we all agreed that seeing the beautiful mountains, rice terraces, and minority people was worth the difficult trek and ruined clothes.
Back in town, I showered off and changed into my Hmong pants. Just about everyone stared at me. A woman at a coffee shop said, "Nice pants." I asked her if they were men or women's pants. She just said, "No one wears those pants." Heh. Eventually, we made it back to the train station and zoomed back to Hanoi where the Pacific Hotel fed us and sent us on to Halong Bay.