Patricia Rodriguez discovers the joys (and hassles) of Vietnam, but falls in love with it anyway
LAU CAI, Vietnam – After sleeping fitfully on the night train from Hanoi – note to self: Drink fewer liquids prior to a 10-hour journey on a train where the bathroom is a hole in the floor two cars down – we are herded onto a waiting minibus for the drive to Sa Pa.
The highlands village of Sa Pa, a 90-minute ride from Lau Cai, a trade centre on the Vietnam – China border, has been billed as a bucolic paradise, green, peaceful and mostly unspoiled by modern commerce. But the morning is hazy and foggy and still a bit dark, and as our van struggles through traffic-choked streets, I can’t see much of anything. We drive past long stretches of small, faded buildings with their metal security doors rolled shut, advertising “pho com” (soup/restaurant), “bia hoi” (fresh beer) and “karaoke” (no translation necessary). Kids in Nike warm-up jackets and baseball caps drive scooters loaded with trays of cut-up chickens or boxes bursting with vegetables; other mopeds carry entire families, two adults and two or three kids, so tightly packed together they don’t even have to hang on. It looks like bustling Ho Chi Minh City, except on a smaller, dingier scale.
Then, suddenly, the bus turns a corner and begins to struggle uphill, and the sun burns through, the fog lifting like a film being peeled from a piece of glass. Revealed is the lush landscape we’d been promised. Low, mist-covered mountains, their sides precisely terraced with rice paddies. Rises covered with fir trees and endless beds of lavender-flowering indigo plants. A clear, rocky stream, crossed by a rudimentary wooden bridge. It’s “National Geographic” – beautiful. Worth every second of last night’s discomfort.
And that, for me, is Vietnam: Just when I’m about to give up on this place, something happens that makes me fall just a little bit in love with it.
At times, Vietnam can be an easy place to love: When you’re walking undisturbed through thousand-year-old palace ruins in the imperial city of Hue. When you’re eating a huge bowl of “pho,” beef noodle soup scented with cilantro, mint and lemon grass, that costs less than 50 cents from a sidewalk vendor in Hanoi. When you’re being fussed over in a tailor’s shop in the ancient fishing port of Hoi An, being fitted for custom-made silk clothing that will be delivered to your hotel within 24 hours.
But at other times, it feels like trying to travel with a toddler, one who’s loud, messy, frantic, constantly changing his mind and demanding all your attention, right this minute.
My husband and I had hit bottom in Ho Chi Minh City, only a few hours after arriving in Vietnam and finding our way to a $15-a-night hotel in the area of the city that caters to backpackers. Trying to walk to the nearby public market, we couldn’t take two steps without being asked to buy something. Postcards? Cyclo ride? Taxi? Chewing gum? Spring rolls? Cigarettes? Beer? Hotel room? Guidebook? Guide?
Hot and frustrated, we retreated to a touristy cafe – crowded with dreadlocked and tattooed Western backpackers, smoking and drinking Vietnamese-brewed 333 beer – and wondered whether coming to Vietnam had been a good idea.
We’d planned to spend a few days based here, seeing some of the nearby sights, like the Mekong Delta’s floating markets, huge flotillas of small boats moored together so closely you can step from one to another, buying lychee and bananas from one boat, plasticware from another, conical straw hats from the next. But the smog, the heat and the relentless commercialism got to us. On only our second day, we hopped on a flight to Hanoi, the northern capital. The center of the country’s ruling Communist Party, it also has a reputation as a gracious, reserved city, older and quieter than Ho Chi Minh, retaining a bit more of its French-colonial heritage and architecture. Also, roughly a thousand miles to the north, it would be cooler. We thought we might like it better.
“Mademoiselle”, the cook says, waving my husband and me into her tiny restaurant, just a bare room that opens directly onto the street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Her daughter smiles and propels us toward a low table in the corner, where we sit on tiny plastic footstools. Around us, several other diners, mostly older men, eat their pho, or soup, and read local newspapers.
We don’t have to order; the proprietress simply starts cooking. Squatting in front of a few pots on portable burners, she takes a couple of large handfuls of very long noodles, cutting them with scissors and eyeballing them until the two portions seem equal. These she places in a bowl, ladling hot broth from a giant kettle over the top. Next, she plucks pieces of meat, hard-cooked eggs and dumplings from other pans and adds these to each bowl, finishing with a handful of fresh herbs. She hands the bowls to a young boy, who delivers them to our table, and then watches attentively as we dig in, giggling as my chopsticks keep dropping the long, slippery noodles. I laugh, too, but I keep trying; the pho is too delicious to leave in the bowl.
The cost for breakfast and entertainment? Less than $1. We head out into the early-morning streets, well-fed and happy. It’s our third day in-country, and Vietnam is growing on us.
Hanoi is jammed with traditional tourist sites, including ancient temples and pagodas, French cathedrals, scenic lakes and parks, and a gaggle of buildings dedicated to the late Vietnamese ruler Ho Chi Minh himself, including a museum, the stilt house where he lived in the ‘60s, and the mausoleum where his remains are on display. We’ll eventually see some of these, but mostly, we spend our time in Hanoi getting a feel for the city – walking, shopping, eating and just sitting.
Hanoi is perfect for this type of touring because it’s compact, walkable and, somewhat surprisingly for such a large urban center, quite beautiful.
Tourists spend much of their time in the Old Quarter, which has been the city’s commercial district for more than 1,000 years. The district begins at the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake, edged by weeping-willow trees and a small park where young and old gather to exercise at dawn, and complete with a small pagoda built in the middle of the lake.
At one time, each of the narrow, twisted streets in the quarter was named for the type of goods you could buy there – silk, bamboo, copper. Today, the old names are still used, but the streets have become less specialized; stores sell merchandise of all sorts, from traditional water puppets, carved wooden boxes and silk clothing to fake designer sunglasses, boomboxes and T-shirts printed with the image of Ho Chi Minh, four for $10.
The exception is the meat and produce market, with sections still dedicated exclusively to astoundingly fresh displays of fish, flowers, live chickens, vegetables, herbs and fruits, and filled with buyers and sellers haggling over prices and quality. It becomes our favorite place for lunch. At one stall, we buy fritters of sliced bananas and sweet potatoes, dipped in a sweet rice-flour batter and fried crispy.
At another, a crusty French baguette filled with pat’ and cucumber slices, garnished with cilantro and fish sauce, the national Vietnamese condiment. At a third, giant prawns, cooked over a tiny charcoal grill, served with French bread and cold Vietnamese beer.
The Old Quarter has also been an area of growth for hotels, restaurants and coffee bars. We linger over sweet iced coffees and spring rolls at a second-story cafe overlooking the traffic circle across from Hoan Kiem Lake, watching the cat-and-mouse game that is city traffic here.
Traffic in Hanoi, like in the other large Vietnamese cities, is dominated by motor scooters, traveling six or eight or more abreast. There seem to be few lanes, few traffic lights and only one rule – if you’re driving, don’t hit anyone. Crossing the street is like playing the old video game of “Frogger.” There’s no such thing as a “walk” sign; to cross a busy street, you simply take a breath, make sure you’re not stepping out directly in front of anyone, and start walking slowly and deliberately, keeping your eyes on the traffic, so they know you see them. Miraculously, they’ll swerve around pedestrians every time. Watching it from above, it’s like a beautiful ballet, except with lots of honking horns and traffic fumes.
Still, after a couple of days, Hanoi’s charms wear a bit thin; it’s still a city of people trying to make up for lost time economically. Some of our fellow tourists have developed strategies for spurning the persistent vendors and cyclo drivers – ignoring them, frowning, pretending not to understand English. (Practically all young Vietnamese speak at least a bit of English, though some older people still speak French.) I, however, must look like an easy mark; I can’t help but speak to every vendor, often with a smile, even when I’m saying no.
Sa Pa is as far from the city as you can get in Vietnam, we’re assured. It’s not a short trip – at least 10 hours overnight on the train both ways – but we figure to see another side of this diverse country, it’s worth it.
Sa Pa was built as a hill station by the French in the early 1920s, a scenic retreat where they could escape the heat and humidity of the lowlands and the coast. When the French withdrew, it fell into a period of decline, hotels and cafes getting shuttered and many people moving to larger cities in search of work.
But over the past decade it has been discovered by tourists who are eager to see the lovely mountain vistas and experience the culture of the hill people. Hotels have been restored or built from scratch, new restaurants have opened, tour guides have multiplied. There’s even an Internet cafe. Now the market in Sa Pa is flooded with tourists every day, and there are frequent organized tours to smaller markets in the surrounding villages.
At arrival, Sa Pa seems like the Vietnamese version of a Colorado ski town; a couple of the new hotels are even built in the style of a mountain chalet, complete with flower-filled window boxes. But it’s still somewhat rustic, with dusty, steeply angled streets and little traffic. Our simple guesthouse has a terrific view of the town and surrounding valley – but requires a hike of six flights of stairs to get to our room.
Yet some complain that the influx of outsiders – still only a tiny proportion of those who visit Vietnam – is having an adverse effect on the culture of the tribal peoples, essentially Westernizing them.
True, the Hmong and Dao women in particular have taken well to capitalism. The women have learned that their craft work – pressed-tin and silver jewelry, and beautifully dyed and embroidered pillows, tablecloths, purses, vests and dresses – were coveted by the Western visitors. Now small groups of women and larger bands of girls, as young as 7 or 8, congregate on the main tourist streets and near the market, wearing gorgeous traditional dress and trolling for customers.
“You’re pretty!” one calls out.
“I like your hat!” says another, emboldened by the first.
“Where are you from?” asks a third, and they all collapse into giggles. But they keep their mind on business. Pause for even a second and risk being engulfed by a sea of smiling, chattering little saleswomen, each begging that “you buy from me, from me.”
The tactics work. I end up with far more tin bracelets and indigo garments than I can possibly use, and many new, small friends, all of whom remember us the next day when we wander through the market.
“Are you ready?” asks a tiny, beautiful girl, dressed in the traditional clothing of the Black Hmong tribe – a skirt, vest and leggings dyed in indigo, a blue-black so deep it’s almost shiny, and embellished with rows of colorful embroidery, and a conical hat, her long black hair pinned within it and the ends spilling from the opening at the top. She also wears huge loop earrings, an armful of bracelets, and in a nod to the changes that have arrived in her world, a pink ribbed turtleneck, a nylon backpack and flat plastic-soled sandals.
Her name is Zei, and she will be our guide for the next two days. She looks about 12, but she says she is 16 and has been leading tours for almost three months. Today we’ll have an easy hike – a couple of hours round-trip to a waterfall that was once harnessed for electrical power by the French, with a leisurely side trip over a wooden footbridge and through fields of indigo.
But the next morning, when Zei comes to collect us after breakfast, is a different story. Today we will visit three ethnic villages – one settled by the Hmong, Zei’s tribe; another by the Tay, known for their wooden stilt houses; and the last by the Dao, recognized by their bright red, puffy turbans, edged with large silver beads.
“We will walk for 14 kilometers (about 8.5 miles) today. Mostly down, though,” says Zei, whose English is very good, from talking with tourists.
(She didn’t study English in school – in fact, she says she hasn’t been to school regularly in years, apparently a sadly common occurrence among the hill-tribe children. Her first language is Hmong, which somewhat resembles Chinese, but she says her English is better than her Vietnamese.)
“You’ll be OK?” she asks, shouldering her backpack, containing lunch and water for all three of us, and assuring us we can catch a ride back to Sa Pa rather than repeat the 14-kilometer route. We promise her we can handle it, and we head out of town.
For a while, we keep to the main road, where the lovely overlooks of forests, rice paddies, indigo fields and the occasional small house must compete with a constant passing stream of minibuses, motorscooters and small trucks. After about a mile, we evidently pass some sort of test, for Zei leads us off the main road and its parade of tourists and onto a barely discernible footpath, descending steeply into the wooded valley.
“This is a better way,” she says.
“Shortcut?” I ask.
“No, just better,” she says.
This, apparently, is a local route. We no longer see tourists, but we pass water buffalo, which make a show of ignoring us, and Hmong women and girls, on their way to market, who smile and offer to sell us yet more indigo clothing. At one point, we’re passed by a group of eight or nine young teen-agers, each carrying a piece or two of corrugated metal on his head and walking about twice as fast as us on the rocky path.
“Someone is getting a new roof,” Zei observes.
Sometimes, we can see a small house or two, tin or thatched roofs nearly obscured by the greenery. Most often, we see an endless expanse of green. Though the villages have been billed as the tour’s highlight, we find ourselves more thrilled by the landscape. It changes from thick forest to a more open valley; we cross rocky streams on rickety-looking wooden footbridges and clamber up staircases rudely fashioned from flat stones. Eventually, the path seems to disappear. We pick our way through rice paddies, carefully balancing on the earthen dikes that are built into the hillsides.
Zei, at first shy, begins talking more the farther we walk. She lives with her mother and little sister; we get the sense she is their main source of income. She used to sell trinkets to the tourists, but when her English was deemed good enough, she was hired as a guide, an occurrence she seems to regard as a striking bit of good luck. She makes better money – a few dollars per trip, plus tips – and the work is steadier. To her, being a tour guide is easy – just walking along paths she’d be using anyway. And usually, she says, the people are nice.
At the last village, little more than a half-dozen huts in a loosely arranged group, we run into another guide, a friend of Zei’s, and her charge for the day, an Australian army officer named Flo whom we’d met on the train. Flo has taken a longer excursion yet, and she’ll be spending the night in one of the villager’s homes. They invite Zei and us into the home to look around; it’s cozy and comfortable, with wooden benches, a small kitchen and several platforms piled with bright blankets for sleeping. The guide offers us cool water and snacks, but we still have a long way to hike; we have to be on our way.
“Isn’t this the greatest?” Flo stage-whispers to me as we leave her to head back to Sa Pa. “Don’t you love that you’re seeing this?”
Flo is talking about the villages and the day’s hike, and I agree with her. But as we make our way back to the main road, where local entrepreneurs will offer us rides on their mo-peds back to Sa Pa, I realize that I’ve come to feel that way about Vietnam. Ten years from now, as the economy continues to explode and ever more Western tourists discover it, it will be a different country. For better and for worse, I love that I am seeing it now.
The Reunification Express
15 days, Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City
Trip Style: Intrepid Original
Highlights: Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Ho Chi Minh City
Brief: Traverse the length of vibrant Vietnam by train. The Reunification Express is a vital lifeline between north and south Vietnam. Along its path we experience the many scenic, historical, cultural and culinary highlights of this marvellous country. All aboard for a ride you’ll never forget!
Departure: Departs every Sunday & Thursday
Price: AU$885 plus a Local Payment of US$200
21 days, Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City
Trip Style: Intrepid Basix
Highlights: Hanoi, Halong Bay, Cat Ba Island, Sapa hilltribes, Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Ho Chi Minh City
Brief: There is a lot more to Vietnam than rice paddies and noodle soup! See Vietnam from top to bottom, witness its ancient and modern history and explore the tiny villages and teeming cities. From commercial centres to spiritual havens, this stunningly beautiful country has something exciting to offer around every corner.
Departure: Departs every Monday
Price: AU$895 plus a Local Payment of US$300
Vietnam Family Adventure
15 days, Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City
Trip Style: Intrepid Family
Highlights: Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Ho Chi Minh City
Brief: Diverse, beautiful and lots of fun – Vietnam is a great place for a family adventure. Journey together from Hanoi to historical Hue and Hoi An, the beautiful beaches of Nha Trang and the modern metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City. On this trip, the whole family is set to be entertained and educated by the people, history, colour and culture of this ancient and amazing country.
Departure: Departs on a Saturday. Dates available online at www.intrepidtravel.com/vfa
Price: AU$1165 plus a Local Payment of US$200
15 days, Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi
Trip Style: Intrepid Comfort
Highlights: Ho Chi Minh City, Cu Chi Tunnels, Mekong Delta homestay, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, water puppets, Halong Bay, Hanoi.
Brief: From south to north, Vietnam is a kaleidoscope of wonderful people and picturesque landscapes. Imagine exploring the beautiful lakes and boulevards of Hanoi and shopping to your heart’s content. What better way to get to know the locals than to be their guests in a Mekong Delta homestay! Experience historical temples, spectacular scenery, delicious banquets and lively cities all with a touch of comfort.
Departure: Departs on a Sunday. Dates available online at www.intrepidtravel.com/vkt
Price: AU$1625 plus a Local Payment of US$200
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
When is the best time of year to travel?
Generally, there is no “best” time for travelling in Vietnam. The seasons are a little vague and vary considerably from north to south and within regions. Flooding can sometimes cause minor alterations to our itineraries. THE SOUTH: The dry season is from December to June with March to May being particularly hot and humid. Temperature range from 27°C to 36°C. The wet season with short, heavy rain showers is from July to November. Temperatures average between 22°C and 27°C. THE NORTH: With four seasons, winter is from December to February – it can be extremely cold in Hanoi and the mountainous regions, with overnight temperatures of 4°C and daytime highs between 10°C and 20°C. Thermal clothing is a good idea if trekking in winter. Summer is June to August – expect hot and humid conditions at this time. Temperatures average 27°C to 30°C with high humidity.
Religion: Predominantly Buddhist, with Confucianism, Taoism & other minorities
Currency: Dong (VND)
Visas: It is necessary to apply for a one month travel visa prior to travel as they cannot be obtained on arrival. This visa takes about 5 days to process and must state the date of arrival and departure in order to be valid.
Electricity: 220V, 50 Hz AC (some 110V, 50 Hz AC)
Times to avoid: Best to avoid the Vietnamese New Year, Tet. Dates are based on the Chinese New Year lunar calendar and therefore vary from year to year. Scheduled TET dates for 2006 are January 29th and for 2007 it is planned for the 18th of February. Vietnam effectively shuts down for at least 3 days over this period and it is virtually impossible to travel anywhere as 60 million Vietnamese are also travelling to see their families.