Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam travel blog

Our deluxe cabin on the Orient Express

Fields and fields of rice paddies

Women vendors

Another local in Sa Pa

Sa Pa traditions begin early

SaPa Black Mong locals

Beautiful local young women

Our new embroidered wall hanging made by local

A toothbrush recipient

Village weaver

Very basic living conditions in the villages

Paradise Prestige junk

Sunset Ha Long Bay

The magnificence of Ha Long Bay

Typical breakfasts on the junk

Locals start young here too

Mornings in Ha Long Bay

Traditional royalty clothing

Millions of Chinese tourists in motor boats

Kayaking excursion

Cooking class on the junk

Our small group of 15 cruising Ha Long Bay

Uncle Ho's Resting Place in Hanoi

Beer Alley in Hanoi

First university in Vietnam--we feel smarter just being there!

Graduating class of university students

Future grads--fist pump is universal

Cozy ride through Hanoi

Bun Cha specialty at Houng Lien restaurant

Obama and Bourdian at Houng Lien Restaurant

Morning rush hour in Hanoi


Planes, trains and automobiles in one day! We had a short stopover in Hanoi after flying in from Hue before boarding our overnight Orient Express to SaPa in the north. We had the deluxe sleeper cabin for two. Sadly, it was NOT the luxurious and exotic Orient Express that you may be thinking of...this train was fairly rustic and shared toilet but at least it was private! We arrived into Loa Cai station at 6am, met our guide and driver then proceeded to drive 40 km uphill and harrowing switchback roads to SaPa. It was quite an investment in time to get up there but once up there, it was well worth the effort. It was cold, easily 20 degrees colder than any where else we had travelled to in Indochina. It was about 10 degrees and drizzly, much like Vancouver--a foreshadow of what to expect back home. Despite the fog and rain, you could still make out valleys of rice paddies and vegetable gardens...just breathtaking.

Good thing SaPa is also a destination to buy "Vietnamese" original or copycat North Face clothing and accessories at Vietnamese prices! We arrived bearing gifts to the village locals (unfortunately the pads of paper and pens were distributed long ago in Myanmar and Laos), but as we were staying in all these really nice hotels, we were able to collect the amenities to be redistributed to the locals. We had two bags of goodies...toothbrushes to the kids, lotions, combs, shampoo and conditioner to the women and razor kits to the men. A bit of trivia, not all men grow facial hair so in fact, it took some work to identify those few men who could use the razors. Apparently, this is a genetic thing! As well, we still had a handful of Canada pins so we also gave those out. It felt wonderful to be able to contribute something so small but valuable to people who have so little. This idea was suggested to us by a couple we met at an airport in Myanmar. The wife volunteered with women in several villages through Thailand and she regularly shared these items with the women who very much appreciated these gifts.

The villages we visited were Ta Van (population 3500) and Lao Chai (population 3000). Despite all the fields upon fields of rice paddies in the area, all the rice is consumed exclusively by the families. With only one harvest a year and 3 healthy servings of rice each day, there is nothing left over to sell or export. Therefore, these villages make money by selling their handicrafts...unique weaving, embroidery and limestone sculpting. Our guide Ken told us that if you were coming to visit these villages, what would be a great gift for them was not necessarily money, but school supplies, especially ink pens. He felt that education was so important to provide the next generation with options so that they don't only have to stay on the farms. The typical age boys and girls get married are 15 to 16 and shortly after that, they start having children. In recent years, the government has suggested that families limit the number of children to 2 per family to enhance the quality of life for the children and the parents. Birth control is provided to help with this endeavour.

Although our visit to SaPa was fairly short, it was extremely insightful to see how isolation of these villages, the locals still wear very traditional clothing and adhere to longstanding customs. SaPa is now actively marketed as an eco-tourism destination for natural beauty and trekking. The result of this has been the emerging development of several upscale hotels. In addition to the construction of tourist based amenities, it is clear that road infrastructure is desperately needed as there were many 18 wheeler transport trucks travelling to and from China on the same road as all the tourism traffic which made for very perilous driving conditions.

We took the night train back to Hanoi and was whisked off for a 3 hour drive to Tuan Chau where we boarded a luxury junk to cruise Ha Long Bay for 3 days, 2 nights. Ha Long Bay is a UNESCO world heritage site consisting of thousands of limestone islands. It was just indescribably spectacular and to really appreciate it, you just have to go yourself. We really enjoyed this mini cruise because there were only 15 guests on board which made it so easy to get to know everyone. During our short time on board, we took advantage of a few excursions such as kayaking and exploring into some of the limestone caves. Oh yes, more cooking classes!

We then returned to Hanoi for the conclusion of this remarkable trip. Our guide, Phuong was very passionate about her city. She practised Buddhism and is an ardent supporter of Ho Chi Minh or Uncle Ho as the locals called him. She took us on several of the tourist sights, which included Ho Chi Minh square, where every September 2nd they observe the most important holiday for their country, the day President Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence in 1945. We also went to see the first university in Vietnam opened in 1075 and was operational for 700 years until the Emperor Nguyen closed it in 1779 because he moved the palace to Hue. And then one last stop to visit where the imprisoned American pilots coined the name the Hanoi Hilton. The most famous prisoner was Arizona Senator John McCain.

On our last day, we wanted to go see the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. We left our hotel at 7:00 am to try to beat the crowds...not so much! When we arrived to the mausoleum there were already thousands and thousands of visitors lined up to see the embalmed body of Uncle Ho. We waited for 30 minutes and decided to just to go to the museum. Before heading to the airport, we went for our final lunch at a restaurant our guide recommended. This hole in the wall restaurant called Huong Lien was visited by President Obama and Anthony Bourdain last year. They had the specialty dish, Bun Cha--a bbq pork and noodle soup dish. Since their visit last year, the family owned business had to move out of their upstairs living quarters to add more space to the restaurant which now occupies 5 floors!

We are now waiting to catch our last flight from Taipei to YVR. By the time you read this post, we'll be in the air or maybe even back home. We hope you will be inspired to visit this part of the world if you have not yet been. We absolutely loved this trip. THANK YOU so much for travelling with us!



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