Food, Photos and Travel

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Vietnam- Hoi An

After spending time in the northern part of the country, I packed up and headed south, to the charming ancient town of Hoi An. Relatively untouched by the war, it still features lots of old french architecture and is much quieter then bustling Hanoi.

I did a lot of touring when I was in Hanoi and Sapa, so I wanted to take some time to unwind in Hoi An. I chose a great hotel called the Ancient House Resort, which was a fantastic bargain. $40 a night got me a nice room with cable tv, a comfortable and almost luxurious room (for me, it was luxurious). Plus, there was a fabulous pool, and one night they treated all the guests to a free barbeque! It was a bit of a walk from town, but only a $1 taxi or motobike ride.

In the old town, you will encounter literally hundreds of tailor shops, all willing and prepared to make you a full wardrobe in a day. Shoes as well. There's also a lot of artists and a very interesting market. I was very fond of the food in Hoi An. It was much spicier and had much more flavor then the food I had in the north. It was all good though.

In the Hoi An marketplace, I had one of the strangest experiences. I was getting fitted for some clothes, and a little vietnamese, pregnant woman comes up to me and rubs my legs. "Ooooooh, you so hairy" she tells me. I couldn't argue with her... I haven't shaved my legs since, like, May. I then got dragged into her "beauty salon" which was a simply small cement market stall with a bed. Make no mistake about it though, it is a full service salon. Here you can get a full body massage, manicure, pedicure, hair cut or style, or you can get every hair on your body ripped out by a twisted up piece of thread.

I, of course, chose the last option (clearly the most appealing choice for a weary traveler, right?). I actually had no choice in the matter, these girls- there were 3 of them by this point- were determined to not only remove all the hair from my legs, but also my eyebrows, armpits and bikini. The whole time, quipping that my husband would be "verrrry happy" and "no pain, no gain". They call it threading. I call it the Vietnamese String Torture.

There's a great beach nearby, which was virtually empty. The sun was strong, and the water was so warm. There's just something about the ocean, and sitting there overlooking the South China Sea, it really hit me how far from home I was, and how lucky I was to be there.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Vietnam- Halong Bay

It was another night train that took me back to Hanoi from Sapa. The night train isn't so bad. There are cheap, silk sleeping bags all over Sapa and Hanoi that make the beds quite comfortable. Xanax helps too.

I had a hotel room briefly in the morning and then it was time to make the 3 hour drive to Halong Bay. We picked up some tour-mates along the way... a mother and daughter (Susan and Annie) from the San Francisco bay area. They were great traveling companions for the next 2 days. The modernly paved road made it's way through cities and towns, all with the same cement architecture, mountains and limestone karsts, and of course, rice paddies. We arrived at Halong Bay at noon, and the pier is flooded with tourists from all nationalities. Dozens of junk ships in all different sizes (and conditions) were lined up waiting to take passengers on daily or overnight cruises throughout the bay.

All of the ships set sail in generally the same direction, ours among the nicer of the bunch. The limestone cliffs were beautiful, the way they rose out of the sea, and faded into mist. Shortly after boarding, they started serving us lunch. The seafood, like the traffic in Hanoi, started coming and just didn't stop!

Throughout the bay there are caves with enormous caverns and spectacularly lighted rock formations, beaches and even little floating houses and convenience stores. We stopped to explore one of these caves, and then had a swim at a small beach nearby that was crowded with summer tourists. There was a tough climb to a look out at the top of one of the karsts, where you can watch the sunset.

Dinner consisted of even more seafood then lunch, and was equally as delicious. We had stuffed crab, squid, fish, shrimp, loads of vegetables and some pork stir fry, rice and spring rolls, and a few things I didn't recognize. There was a great feeling of satisfaction from everyone as we retired to bed shortly after.

I wanted to wake up for the sunrise the next morning, but after spending the previous two nights on the train and a simple floor mat, there was no way I was getting out of that bed. The morning was beautiful, though, with more food and swimming in the bay. On our way back to Halong City, we encountered a brief, but torrential, thunder and lightning storm.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Vietnam- Sapa

My trip to Vietnam started out just as any first time trip to SE Asia should. I arrived at Noi Bai airport in Hanoi late Tuesday evening. My backpack, however, did not. After being assured that it might, or might not, come the following afternoon, I left for my hotel room with only the clothes on my back and my camera. It's almost too cliched to even write.

Hanoi is a city that attacks your every sense. My hotel, the Hong Ngoc 1, is part of a small chain located in the Old Quarter section of the city. It's a bustling part of town, full of small streets filled with good such as shoes, backpacks, air conditioners, mattresses, and the ever popular com pho shops. A full day tour of Hanoi generally includes a visit to see Uncle Ho himself, in the flesh, at his mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh is everywhere in Vietnam. The tour also includes a stop at Hoam Kiem Lake where a beautiful temple resides, and is said to be the home of a species of giant turtles. I was very interested to learn how the Vietnamese people pay hommage to their ancestors through the use of alters in their homes and worshipping at temples.

The best way to get to Sapa is with a soft sleeper cabin on the night train to Lao Cai. It is a 10 hour train ride which leaves from Hanoi at 10pm, and another 1 hour by car. Sapa is an old French hill station located in the Tonkin Alps on the Chinese border. The highlight of this area is the expansive valley carved with exquisitely sculpted terraced rice paddies and hillsides tucked with small villages home to several different ethnic minority groups. The rice paddies were lush with vibrant shades of chartruese and gold, waiting to be harvested in several weeks. The people, and their clothing, were equally as vibrant following a lifestyle they have employed for centuries, yet also adapting to the newly developed tourist industry flooding the valley.

I came to Sapa to go trekking in the mountains and visit the villages, and that's what I did. It's the best way to see the area, and the people are very welcoming. I mostly interacted with the H'mong women of the area, who do everything. I'm not really sure what the men did, actually. The young H'mong girls were always eager to talk with me, and ask me questions about myself and my family. They always had something to sell me, from intricately stiched blankets and purses to "silver" earrings and bracelets. In Sapa town, every western tourist would be surrounded by a group of the women. It was a little tiring at times, but they were all very endearing and they work very hard.

The first day was shrouded in mist and rain. We trekked to the nearby Cat Cat village and waterfall, which is about 1.5km downhill from Sapa. It was wet and slippery, but it gave me my first glimpse into the area. I went to bed hoping that the weather the following day would be nicer, since we were to set off on our long trek that morning. The rain gods must have heard me, because the weather was beautiful the rest of my time there.

The trek that day was to take us to Ta Van village located approximately 14km (about 8 miles) from Sapa. It was just me, my guide and a cook, so we went a little off the beaten path (which was very steep and muddy in parts), but we were rewarded with magnificent views around every corner. We walked through the rice paddies, and past homes filled with families who would often come out to greet us. My guide, Houng, was also a photographer so he was happy to let me stop often for shooting.

We arrived at our destination village at around 3 in the afternoon, where we relaxed at the home of a local Zay woman. It was a simple home, with basic board walls and cement floors. The kitchen consisted of a hole in the cement for an open fire. The bathroom was a toilet room in the back of the house (an outhouse, of sorts), and the wash room was a small cement room with a bucket and some cold running water. They owned a buffalo (an ox, to us) and chickens and a dog. The house had a loft area which slept up to 10 people. It was simple... matresses on the floor with a blanket, pillow and mosquito net. This was where I was going to sleep that evening. I didn't take many pictures, because I didn't want to treat them like tourist attractions, but the owner of the house let me take her picture before I left...

All of the young girls and women that I met along the way were so amzing, and open to being photographed, as long as I was respectful of them. I left the area with many new friends, and people who I will never forget.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


I have finally returned home from Vietnam, though I am still suffering from jetlag. If you are waiting to hear from me, I will be in touch soon. I just need an extra evening to recover.