Saturday, April 12, 2014

Vietnam: Sa Pa

So, somewhere in the process of planning our trip, I became a bit obsessed with visiting Sa Pa.  This part of Vietnam sits far in the mountains of the northwest, right across the border from China.  It is the coldest part of Vietnam and a land of misty mountains, waterfalls and rice terraces.  Lots of ethnic minority tribes such as the Dao, Hmong and Tay live in the mountains here.  The French settled in the area around the turn of the 20th century so the region has many villas, monasteries and other remnants of the French colonial period.  Due to its current popularity with tourists, the city is a thriving hub for trekkers. There are tons of fancy foreigners with state-of-the art trekking poles and equipment. You can hire a local guide to take you around the paths that wind through villages in the area.  I heard a lot of good things about Sapa O'Chau, a local minority-owned company, that offers guided tours and homestays. After some discussion, our family decided to book their Red Dao homestay tour. The Red Dao are known for their herbal medicine -- specifically herbal baths.  After a hard day of trekking through the hills, the idea of taking a hot herbal bath appealed to us.

Actually getting to Sa Pa involved an overnight train trip to the city of Lao Cai.  The train, called the Sapaly Express, was definitely the nicest train I have ever been on.  Each cabin had 4 sleeping berths and we were able to book 2 full cabins so that our family of 7 were the only ones in the cabin. 

Seriously, how nice is this train?

Once in Lao Cai, we were treated to the absolutely scariest minibus drive of my life.  The driver of our van crammed 3 of his buddies into the front of the van.  He then proceeded to drive like a crazy person around hairpin curves into the mountains -- all while wrestling with his buddies and taking cell phone calls every 3 minutes.  Seriously ya'll.  I was pretty sure death was imminent and that I had brought my children and parents along on a death trip.  However, obviously we made it to Sa Pa all in once piece. We ate breakfast at the Sapa O'Chau cafe and met our lovely guide Sue.  She is a Black Hmong mother of 4 who works for Sapa O'Chau.  She was tiny -- just a few inches taller than Violet -- but a real powerhouse.  She carried a basket with all of our food provisions. She also kindly asked if we were both vegetarian and glutein-free (just one vegetarian, thank you).  The modern times are definitely here even in the wilds of Vietnam.  We then set forth for a day of trekking.  We saw little baby pigs, chickens and ducks and water buffalo everywhere. We walked about 7 hours on the first day, much of it over hilly areas.  A group of Black Hmong ladies followed us in hopes that we would buy their handicrafts when we stopped to rest.  They "helped" my mom through some of the hillier areas -- although whether they helped or hindered is debatable. 
The proud hikers

Sa Pa and its downtown lake

Vi with some local Black Hmong girls

Our family and the helpers
At the end of our hike, we arrived at the Red Dao house where we were to stay the night.  We were exhausted at that point.  I will admit that carrying heavy packs with our provisions for the overnight stay definitely felt overwhelming by the time we arrived at our host family's house.  It had also been a day or so since we had been able to shower.  Dinner and a hot herbal bath were most welcome.  The bath was taken in huge wooden barrels filled with steeped herbs and hot water. The funny thing is that you sat naked in the tub behind a curtain strung across the kitchen while everyone sat right outside chatting by the fire. The family cooked the meals over an open fire old-fashioned cook stove inside the house. We met another Black Hmong guide and a young British couple at the dinner table and tried some rice wine.  After dinner, there was a surreal moment when our hostess stuck a buffalo horn on her forehead! I was wondering if we were to become part of some type of Dao ritual, but it turns out that it was a headache remedy. Whew!  I was so tired that I and most of my children fell asleep by 8:30.  

Breakfast the next morning was a lovely revelation.  Due to the French influence, the Vietnamese serve crepes as a breakfast food.  Banana crepes and instant coffee were so much better than what I imagine we might be served at a Chinese homestay.  We were so happy for the concept of breakfast:)  After eating far too many crepes, we bid our host family adieu and set forth for the village of Ta Phinn where we were to meet our transport van back to Sa Pa.  The hike on the second day was only 5 hours.  Along the way we met a group of Black Hmong girls who were out with their machetes(!) cutting things down for their parents.  We shared our fruit and some of our bread from our picnic lunch with them.  Our guide said that kids in the mountains only get fruit 1-2 times a year so it is a rare treat for them.  We were happy we could share. Once in town, we had enough time for a quick foot massage (Violet, mom and I) and a shower (the menfolk) and then we took a minibus back to Lao Cai to catch the night train again.  

Our guide Sue.  Tiny but strong and resourceful.

Hello water buffalo!
Our host Phmong May who is Red Dao and our guide Sue in front of the homestay
3 little piggies lived in the yard -- so cute!
Our view from the homestay
Our room

I'm sure the bridge was perfectly safe.


So, I bet you thought you might never hear from me again!  I really, really meant to keep and update my blog, but I've started working part-time.  That, plus the sheer craziness and busyness of 3 school-aged kids, has pretty much knocked me out of the running lately.  This working outside the home business is taking some getting used to, for sure. I promise, we don't spend our lives here on vacation.  And I have plenty to say about mundane - but never-boring- daily life in Beijing.  I'm going to try hard to recommit to posting at least once a month.  So, if you know me, do try to nudge me along to make me stick to my promise.

In the meantime, I definitely want to blog about our trip to Vietnam.  My dad served in Vietnam during the war, many many eons ago.  He told us stories about the country when we were kids.  Not gory war stories although I'm certain he has plenty of those.  Rather, he would talk about the beauty of the people and places that he encountered there.  Vietnam and its' people and places fascinated me.  I always thought that it would be amazing to see it, but wasn't sure I would ever do so. My dad also talked about returning, but I'm pretty sure he didn't think it would ever really happen either.  So, when my parents started planning a trip to visit us here in China, we decided that it would be very fun to meet in Vietnam for a week, then go on to China for a week.  Like a great Asian adventure.  Since Vietnam has a lot to see and we only had a week, I let my dad choose between the south and the north.  He decided to go north since that was a part that he didn't see when he was posted here (thank goodness since Americans in the north typically stayed at the Hanoi Hilton).  He spent his time traveling between Hue and Da Nang in the south.

The family nominated me as vacation planner.  So, after consulting Tripadvisor and friends that had recently returned from Vietnam, I mapped out an aggressive itinerary that focused primarily on Sapa in the northwest and Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin.  We based ourselves out of Hanoi, but didn't plan to spend more than a day or so in the city.  Our trip involved homestays with ethnic minorities, luxury cruise boats, overnight trains and plenty of buses, taxis and automobiles in between.

I'll do each leg of the journey as a separate blog post with pictures so you can see the different areas. The short version is that we all LOVED Vietnam and had a great time.  We also had a pretty adventurous and active itinerary. I'm thrilled that my parents and my children did a great job keeping up.  We didn't spend a single night in the same place.  And we hiked over 12 hours.

Here is a brief preview of what the Old Quarter Hanoi is like. This was right in front of our hotel.  Craziness!  Cars also use this road, amazingly enough.  So glad I wasn't driving there.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Bali Hai!

So, I kind of thought that this was how you said hello in Balinese or something clever like that.  But as it turns out, the phrase has nothing to do with the real Bali.  Instead, it was the name of a fictional Polynesian island made up by Rodgers and Hammerstein and used in "South Pacific."  It is now the name of the local beer in Bali, Indonesia -- the gorgeous island where we were lucky to spend 8 days. Although part of Indonesia, the Balinese have their own language and follow Balinese Hinduism.  Margaret Mead and some other cultural anthropologists apparently headed to the island in droves in the 1930s and tourists descended also after the anthropologists described it as " "an enchanted land of aesthetes at peace with themselves and nature." The Balinese are known for their arts, including dancing, music and woodworking.  You can purchase a dazzling array of "tat" like t-shirts, sarongs, inexpensive jewelry, etc. in the markets, as well as some genuinely lovely artwork.

October 1 marked the beginning of the National Holidays in China aka Golden Week.  This date marks the founding of modern China.  It is also the time in which the entire country decides to visit the monuments and capital cities. Like, you know, Beijing perhaps. My language teacher recommended either leaving China completely or staying in our house. Apparently Beijing during Golden Week looks something like this. Since Chris had time off work and the kids were off school, we were happy to oblige.  For our first foray outside of China, we chose Bali.  It seemed like it would have the best combination of beachy fun and interesting opportunities for cultural exploration.  It also has some of the best weather this time of year when Thailand, Vietnam, etc. are firmly entrenched in their rainy seasons. 

Our journey started with a 9 hour flight that left at 2 am so I was a bit nervous about how the kids would do.  It was on a budget carrier where they didn't even serve food and there was NO in-flight entertainment.  Fortunately, they were too tired to protest much and slept much of the time on the way to Bali.  When we got to the island, security was tight and it took a loooong time to get through customs and immigration. We inadvertently planned our visit to Bali for the same time the Miss World finals happened on the island -- and right before the APEC convention, which is attended by numerous heads of state and important officials.  In fact, the airport was due to be closed for several days and we just missed getting caught up in the closings and stuck in Bali.  Gosh, that would have been heartbreaking;)

We actually spent most of our visit lounging around the beach and pools at our hotel. We agreed before we left that this would be a "chill" vacation versus an "explore" vacation. I will admit to getting a bit carried away in excitement when confronted with lots of things to see and do.  Hong Kong was really fun, but really exhausting so we were trying to move at a much slower pace in Bali. We did spend two days looking around the island so that gave us a bit more of the flavor of the place. I'd love to go back and stay inland away from the beach areas so that I can explore more of those parts of Bali.