Hanoi and Sapa

Day 20-21 24-26 Hanoi 13-14, 17-19 March 2010

Getting back to Hanoi has been one of the main aims of the whole trip and our memories of this wonderful city have not disappointed us. Many people do not see the beauty in Hanoi, finding the narrow, dirty and horribly crowded streets of the Old Quarter just too much to handle. For us, the joy of Hanoi is all of that. We spend a lot of time simply watching the street life. When booking a hotel in Hanoi, a street balcony is a real asset because standing on the balcony looking down on the hustle of street-life is extremely entertaining.

The weather is Hanoi was cool and even threatening to rain, though this year’s monsoon really failed to materialize. We haven’t used an airconditioner since Ho Chi Minh and while the temperature is comfortable, the odd bit of sunshine would be welcome.

We had few plans, other than heading up into the mountains for a couple of days trekking around Sapa. Our success with tailors and cobblers in Hoi An had prompted us to try the many cheap opticians in Hanoi. Talk on the Internet suggested that very high quality specs can be obtained for $10-$50. Unfortunately, we tried a few opticians but language barriers became too great and in the end we abandoned the plan.

The other major tourist drawcard from Hanoi is Halong Bay but we had done a wonderful cruise in 2007 and visited again on the Virgo cruise a year later so we felt that we had “done Halong”.
Much of the time, therefore, was simply spent walking. With the huge increase in motorbike numbers, walking has become a lot more challenging. Most pavement areas are now taken up with parked scooters and people are forced to walk on the streets along with the motor bike, cycles, cars, hand carts, basket carrying women and the odd mini-bus. Despite seeing quite a few near misses, we never have witnessed an actual collision. We quickly became quite adept at negotiating even the busiest road and found ourselves mimicking the locals by completely ignoring traffic lights at the few intersections that bother with any form of control. A few times, we had a reason to walk through the streets in company with a local. They appeared completely oblivious to the presence of any vehicles and even talked a lot on their mobile phone while crossing streets and dodging bikes. The main reason the system works is that most vehicles are doing around 20km/hr and generally act as a cooperative mass. The same thing in Perth would result in scores of deaths each day, as inconsiderate maniacs competed to fill empty spots as quickly as possible.

One very frustrating aspect of life in the Old Quarter is that it is set out on the old Chinese principles of commercial guilds. Hence, each specific trade or merchandise type has a street. If you want a bag, you search in vain until you locate the street of bags, then almost every shop sells bags. Small convenience stores (Seven Elevens) that are so common in other parts of Asia, don’t seem to exist. If one wants some snacks and beer, you have to search for the snack and biscuit street. The Alcohol Street is good for buying wine but won’t sell beer in quantities less than a carton. One night, we wanted some paracetamol. After searching the small generalist street stalls in vain, we asked at a wine shop, figuring that if they can cause the headaches they should know where to cure one. The owner called her daughter out who spoke faltering English with a US accent and gave us directions to a “drug store”. The pharmacist completely ignored us for ages, probably fearful of a difficult language problem. Finally, she pushed a paper and pencil in front of us and we wrote, “Paracetamol”. With such an easy request, we were attended to and soon on our way.

We met a lot of real characters on the streets. The Chinese gentleman who ran the nearest photo printing place loved to engage us in conversation, some of which we understood. He showed us how to use a “blue light” to detect the many Chinese banknote forgeries that were coming across the border. They were made of the same polymer plastic that we use (Australia makes Vietnamese Dong) but lacked the secret images that can be revealed by special light. The man at the “Wild Kangaroo Travel Agency”, where we booked some train tickets and Sapa accommodation, was also very chatty and seemed happy to talk without always trying to sell something. Another interesting group was a bunch of Aussies we met one night at a Bia Hoi (local beer) corner. With good beer at 23c a glass, the talk came easily. This group visits every year, taking on tasks in isolated outlying visits. This year, they were fixing up an old toilet in a village school and making a kitchen and meals area for the kids. They raise their own funding through sponsorship, pay their own fares and accommodation and have a ball. Their wives were just returning to Hanoi as part of a medical team giving assistance in another area. The group is based on the Sunshine Coast but with one West Aussie member, we promised to look up the details on the net and maybe follow up. It looks like exciting and fun work.

As usual, the food was wonderful. We revisited some favourites from our last visit; 69 Café and Little Hanoi. Across the road from 69 Café, we were intrigued by one establishment that looked basic but was always filled to overflowing with both locals and tourists. We gave it a go one night. The menu had both a-la-carte and “From the kitchen” prices. We asked about “from the kitchen” and the waiter immediately whisked us away into the kitchen area and showed us a huge array of food. Before we knew what was happening, we had both ordered duck, rice, some vegetables and a potato dish. We were sent back to our table and the food started arriving. We watched in despair as food for a family of 15 arrived on our table. The duck alone would sink us. With no idea of what we had spent, we made a feeble attempt at making a hole in the pile before asking for a container to take some back to the hotel. We filled a foam dish with duck and waited for the bad news in the form of the bill. The whole spread, with a beer to wash down, set up back a whole $US10. I still have no real idea of how the “from the kitchen” menu works but we need one just like it in Perth.

Our Hanoi stay was in two parts, around a visit to Sapa. The first couple of days was at the Hanoi Boutique Hotel in Bat Su, a good neat little place run by Miss Moon. The whole staff were very keen to please and keep our business and we felt quite guilty about swapping to the Nam Hai 1 for the second part of our stay. We mainly did this because Ma May St has so many more interesting eateries and sights than the Bat Su area. The Nam Hai 1 was slightly more expensive at $40 a night but it is a very good standard of hotel for the money. We had also been subjected to the egg and baguette breakfast for nearly a week by now and relished the options of a real buffet at Nam Hai. Cheap Hanoi Hotels are an absolute bargain. The $25-40 price range gets some incredible deals with very little shopping around. We checked out the rooms at the Camellia 4 and decided that it was a top spot to recommend. At $27 a night it is hard to beat. The Prince II Hotel was also good value at $25 although the rooms were a little smaller and it didn’t have a lift.

The local beer, or “Bia Hoi” is both famous and very cheap in Hanoi. We had a couple of big sessions at our favourite Bia Hoi corner. You sit on tiny plastic stools at tiny plastic tables, reminiscent of kindergarten furniture and get served in glasses. The owner keeps a tab. Every so often, a motorbike stops and someone gets off with an empty cool drink bottle and fills that up from the keg. I get the impression that the whole operation does not require the participation of a liquor licensing court. Some places sell raw peanuts as well and Bia Hoi corners are often strewn with empty shells. The alcohol content must be pretty low because it’s not hard to drink a belly full and still walk away.

We undertook another cooking lesson. We checked with the Travel guy at Nam Hai and he took us down the street, through a narrow alleyway and up some stairs to an almost secret restaurant called the Pham Anh Tuyet. This place is very famous, he assured us. He spoke to a young girl and we organized an afternoon of cooking for the following day. A check on the Internet later revealed that the Pham Anh Tuyet is indeed famous and very well respected, the owner winning numerous awards for cooking and hospitality as well as running her own TV show. At $US40 each, it was pretty heavy going but the experience was worth every cent. Once again, we had a personalized lesson and a trip to the markets to buy some ingredients. The markets were close by, but we were quite unaware of their existence. A few ingredients would be a challenge in Perth but mostly things are the same or easily substituted. The cooking itself was an excellent mix of demonstration, hands on practical and some pre-preparation by other restaurant staff. We cooked ourselves a truly magnificent meal, quite different from the one in Hoi An. Even the spring rolls, bore little resemblance to Hoi An Spring Rolls. These were very delicate and a lot healthier. However, we both got into trouble a lot for rolling ours too thin and long. Hanoi Spring Rolls are supposed to be shorter and fatter. At the end of the course, we were presented with certificates and photos of the experience. We left with very full stomachs.

Overall Impressions of Hanoi
• Nothing much has changed except there are more motorbikes and more ATMs.
• Hanoi is as different to Ho Chi Minh as Darwin is to Melbourne. It has a “small town feel” and the locals are fiercely proud of their city.
• Hanoi is terrific.

Day 22-23 Sapa 15-16 March 2010

From Hanoi, we organized a couple of days in Sapa, a mountain village on the China border to the North. With numerous tour packages on offer and ranging from $US60 to $300 a person, we were not sure of just how to go about it. In the end, we decided to opt out of a tour and organize the separate elements ourselves, not so much to save money (because you don’t) but to ensure that we got just what we wanted.

We stopped in at the Wild Kangaroo Travel Agency in Ma May (I kept calling them the Kangaroo Creek Gang). They sold us the train tickets for the overnight sleeper to Lao Cai, only 1.5km from the border. He also recommended the Sapa Summit Hotel, which at $US12 a night for a balcony room looked and sounded fine. The best thing he sold us was hotel transfers for $2 each person each end. I’m not sure we would have coped with the confusion and hustle of Hanoi Train Station when 3 huge trains all leave for Lao Cai in the space of 2 hours without the services of a wonderful lady who took charge of everything. “You wait here. Don’t move! Now, all follow…. “ and off she would go weaving through the crowd. We given a card to display at Lao Cai which basically told us to look for a man bearing a Summit Hotel sign and not to believe anything anyone else told us.

The train was similar to the one from Danang but each compartment was a little larger and decked out in wood grain finish. The tracks were not as good though, and the train tended to lurch and pitch more than the coastal line. We shared our compartment with a local couple returning home to Lao Cai. Once again, we shared little language but got on well with smiles and nods. Leaving at 9:30, we traveled though the night, arriving around 5:00am. We both slept well.

The hotel transfer system once again worked brilliantly, and as I watched some backpackers in difficult negotiation with the army of waiting motor bike riders, taxi drivers and mini-bus operators, I was glad we had pre-arranged this aspect of the trip. Lao Cai is a modern small city of around 300,000. Very few old buildings remain. The French bombed it to the ground while fighting the Viet Minh then it was leveled again by the Chinese in 1979. What has sprung up is spacious, neat and well planned.

The drive up the valley and mountain pass took 40 minutes. For 30 minutes, the bus climbed, often up very steep grades. Christine handled the steep drop-aways very well and it seems that her near phobic hatred of edges has been cured. I was more concerned about missing the trucks that came careering around the hair-pin bends towards us but somehow all went smoothly and we were deposited at the aptly named Summit Hotel. We could look down on the village of Sapa, which, of course, meant a walk back up the hill to the hotel from the village was needed. The room was excellent, with a wonderful balcony vista of mountains and village.

summit_hotel.jpg We organized a couple of treks, getting straight into it with a 15km hike after only an hour to check in and grab breakfast. We joined a small group of 5 with a Sapa local named Hin as our guide and set off down into the valley to the river. We followed the river along the valley floor and eventually reached a village of the H’mong people. The whole trek, we were accompanied by both young H’mong girls aged 11-13 and H’mong women in their fifties. They were keen to chat and we were really surprised at their good grasp of English, given that they only have 4-5 years of school, attend infrequently as family commitments permit and are only taught Vietnamese. The English and French is picked up from tourists. They must be naturally gifted in languages because their accent was perfect and it seemed that vocabulary was limited more by narrow experience than lack of language. Of course, the more we talked with them, the bigger the expectation that we would buy some handicrafts when we reached their village.

Hin had to pay a couple of tolls along the way to give the group access to land and the village. We were also warmly greeted by all manner of workers and children along the way. The sides of the valley are heavily terraced for rice production and although currently lying fallow between crops, there was still work to be done. We stopped to watch a small group of children fishing in the river. They used two long bamboo poles, each with a steel electrode attached. Wires ran all the way back down the river to the nearest hut. They probed under rocks and waterfalls, seeking to stun the fish enough to force them into small dab nets. There was much excitement each time they managed to capture a minnow sized fish.

hmong.jpgThe village was primitive. Rice is still husked using a water driven stomper, only some houses had electricity and hand tools are much in evidence. Even so, we always had mobile phone coverage and many villagers could be seen talking or texting. We were given a basic lunch of bacon, tomato and baguettes at a simple restaurant. Even though Hin assured us we were under no obligation to by craft goods from the children that had accompanied us, we did, paying out for too much for a couple of small hand bags that we didn’t really want. All the clothing and bags are made from indigo dyed hemp. The colours are not set and one must be careful to separate the stuff out from other clothing when packing lest the indigo spreads. All the women and girls continuously spun hemp into yarn as they walked, spooling it around on their hands. There is also a concept promoted by some that tourists should not buy things from children in underprivileged communities because it fosters paternalism and a reliance on consumer goods. My feeling is that this is hypocritical and that the only true way of protecting the villagers from the outside influences is not to visit at all. One can hardly come to look then ignore the villagers attempts to emulate the outside World or dismiss the only access they have to the kind of commercialism that gave us the money to come in the first place. Some of the villages have taken this one more step and set up home stay environments for trekkers but we opted to return to the hotel. In the end, Hin’s warnings proved correct and as soon as we bought from the children that had helped us along the way, the other children wanted us to buy from them also. They are very good at playing the sympathy game.

Meanwhile, we shocked one young Irish backpacker who had travelled through the depths of Africa and up through the Thai, Cambodian, Laos interiors as well as East Coast Australia. She talked of the poverty she had seen. We compared what we were seeing amongst the H’mong with some of the communities in the NT and Kimberley and she was genuinely horrified that such conditions could exist in Australia. I think she was most upset to think that she had been in Australia and missed a chance to see some people in crisis. It’s very true that the rest of the World knows little of the problems facing so many Australians.

After a 15km hike, a bus ride back up the valley to the hotel was welcome. Even though much of the hike was down-hill, we found this still works calves and thighs hard. Worst of all was the bruising to the toes with the feet being constantly forced forward by the sharp downhill angle. By the time we got back, we were ready for a decent rest.

The next day, we took a much shorter trek of around 6km. Again, Hin was our guide but this time we had different companions. One particularly interesting couple was a mother and son from Georgia in the US. The mother was raised in Hanoi but left to go to Saigon after the separation into North and South, then further fled Vietnam as a refugee after the fall of Saigon. This was her second visit back, her first was to try to locate family and this was to show her son (in his 20s) some of the country. She could remember the Sapa of old and mourned the loss of much beautiful scenery as more clearing for rice paddies has taken place.

Though shorter, the trek was not much easier than the previous day. The muscle soreness probably made things worse but the climb down the valley was very steep in places and hard on the legs. About a third of the way down, the vista opened up and Hin pointed to a tiny cluster of buildings far below on the opposite bank. With horror, we realized that he was pointing out Cat Cat, our destination. It looked a ridiculously long way away and far too far down to reach. We followed goat trails down; we knew this because sometimes the goats shared the trails; eventually emerging into the village and crossing a bridge over the river. A small collection of souvenir selling stalls awaited and a resting spot in front of a rather pretty waterfall.

We were told we could either walk back up a made track and follow the main road up to to Sapa, wait for a hotel mini bus and pay 20,000 Dong each or negotiate with the many persistent motorbike riders for a lift on the back of a bike. As the weather began to close in and visibility worsen, we opted for the quickest and jumped on the back of a bike each, having got the price down to 20,000 dong. What an amazing ride. As we climbed, the visibility dropped to around 20 metres. The road was a series of hairpins with almost sheer drop-offs but it didn’t matter because we could barely see the front wheel of the bike. The trip was much longer than I’d thought and after the guy dropped me at the Sapa Markets, I gave him another 10,000 dong for his troubles. He looked thrilled, as did Christine’s driver when they emerged from the mist.

Walking around Sapa was difficult because we really couldn’t see much at all in the rain/mist. We went back to the hotel to rest up for a bit and wait for the weather to ease. By the afternoon, the weather had improved but the temperature had dropped. I stopped at one of the many mountaineering stores and bought a genuine “Columbia” jacket for around $20. We ate at a great little restaurant in town, drank some local beer (bia hoi) at 3000 dong a glass (18 cents) and checked out a few markets (You buy from me???)

By late afternoon, it was pack up and back into the mini bus for the drive down the mountain to Lao Cai. The bus was completely packed. It was so bad, they had to fill it with people, put down the aisle seats, fill them with people, fill the remaining aisle with bags, then finally pass more bags through the window to stack up against the closed door. I was worried about driving down the mountain pass in such poor visibility but I found the secret was simply not to watch and somehow we arrived unscathed.

Once again, we were very glad that we had paid a tiny amount to have a local woman organize our life onto the train. She scurried around, buying train tickets for people and issuing instructions about where to wait and when to board the train etc. We killed some time with a young Irish couple we seemed to keep bumping into during our travels and sank a few beers in a local establishment.

We boarded our train around 8:45 to find we were sharing with two French women. They had filled the compartment with their baggage and were straight into bed, making it pretty clear that the sooner we switched the light out and the door shut the happier they would be. We sat up for a while, sorting photographs on the laptop before turning in for the night. The trip was good and we both slept well. I find the rocking of the train is very conducive to sleep and actually have trouble staying awake. We pulled into Hanoi just on daybreak, managed to ignore the taxi touts and organized our own taxi to the hotel. It was a bit embarrassing waking up the night staff who were still asleep on mattresses in the lobby of the hotel but we retrieved our luggage from storage and found our room waiting for us. The hotel staff at Nam Hai 1 were amazingly accommodating and seemed to fall over themselves to help organize our Sapa trip, even though we didn’t use their travel service. In fact, the whole time we stayed with them, they felt more like family and seemed to like to have a chat (as best our limited common language would allow) about our trip and our plans. We obliged them with a very positive review lodged on www.tripadvisor.com.