We arrived in Vietnam more than a little nervous. For one thing, Vietnamese is
a tonal language, which means that each syllable can be pronounced six
different ways, each having a different meaning. We were afraid we would be
unable to communicate. We weren't sure about how safe we would be, or how
Luckily, we were quickly surprised by how nice it is here. We are still unable
to communicate in Vietnamese beyond "xin chao" (hello), but a lot of people
speak enough English that we can get by. And bargaining can be done with just
fingers or paper and pen.
What was the most surprising was how pretty it is here. Even in central Hanoi,
the streets have a pretty movie-set feel. At night, the labyrinthine streets of
the Old Quarter are well-lit and full of locals buying, selling, and eating.
There is a lake between the Old Quarter and the French Quarter that is
surrounded by a band of park. After dark on weekend nights, the benches are
filled with starry-eyed teenage couples whispering to each other.
We met these kids in a park-
they liked the pictures in our books
Like any city, Hanoi has its irritations as well, most notably the vigour and
persistence with which its residents honk their horns. The honking is
omni-present, and mingles with the cries of cyclo (becak) drivers and music and news
broadcast over government loudspeakers.
Maybe the most intriguing thing about Hanoi are the stores in the Old Quarter.
With few exceptions, each store sells only one kind of item. And most streets
specialize in something, too. This goes to extremes -- we saw a street with
several stores selling only stovepipes. Every kind of merchandise is subject to
this specialization: all manner of clothes and underwear, hats, shoes,
doorknobs, gravestones, tea, flowers, silver, stickers, etc. It's the ultimate
way to comparison-shop.
Something else that struck me is how well-dressed the Vietnamese are. In the
city, that's not much of a surprise, but as we ventured out into the
countryside, we saw even poor fishermen wearing spotlessly clean button-down
shirts and slacks.
~ * ~
Our first trip out of the city was a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda. It was on this trip when we first began to suspect just how beautiful the Vietnamese landscape is.
After a bus ride, our tour group was packed into a few small rowboats for an hour-long paddle upriver. The paddling was done by petite, smiling Vietnamese women who handled what must have been a very heavy load with ease.
Boats waiting for tourists
Packed in like sardines
When we disembarked, the next stage was an hour-long hike up a mountain, using stone steps that looked like they'd been there a while. It was nothing like the hiking Steve and I were used to, because eager vendors lined the entire route, hawking cold drinks and places to sit and rest.
Looking down into the cave
Looking up from the cave
When we finally reached the top, we were surprised to find not a pagoda exactly, but a huge cave that was considered a natural pagoda. It resembled the mouth of a dragon, complete with uvula. Inside, a crowd of Buddhists and tourists walked among candles, admiring the rock formations, lighting incense and praying.
The way back was similar but in a more downhill way. We counted our blessings that it was not raining, because the rock steps would be very slippery when wet. Before getting back in the boats, we had noodles and rice for lunch and visited the Kitchen Pagoda, a more traditional pagoda nearby.
Then, we retraced our steps back to the boats, and then took the bus back to Hanoi.
The smile of one of the boatwomen
~ * ~
BEAUTIFUL HA LONG BAY
Let me just get it over with and say that Ha Long Bay is one of the most
beautiful places I have ever been. Even more beautiful than the mighty Milford Sound.
It is kind of similar to Milford Sound in that there are forested rocks jutting
steeply out of the water. But unlike Milford, this goes on for miles and miles
in a bay full of islands. Steve and I went on a three-day cruise tour, spending
one night on the boat and one night in a small town, Cat Ba Town, on the
The harbour in Cat Ba Town
Our boat was remarkably worn-out underneath. The wooden hull looked like it was
rotting, and there was dirt around the edges. But the owners of the boat had
done a pretty good job at putting a nice veneer on the boat; the curtains and
bedding were okay, the inside floors were tiled, and the decks freshly painted.
Basically, we spent most of our time cruising around the bay, with a stop on
the second day to walk to a village on Cat Ba island and hike to the island's
highest point. The hike was a 45-minute scramble straight up a slope, but was
rewarded with a gorgeous view of Ha Long Bay.
Us on top of Cat Ba island
But the best part of the trip was the time just spent sliding past the
profusion of islands in the bay. It was foggy during our whole visit, which
brought a dreamy feel to the place. Aside from the occasional fishing boat or
floating house, we were alone on the water. It almost seemed as if the ghostly
islands were lining up to glide by us one at a time. In the distance, the
islands stood numerous like teeth. Up close, they became greener and intrigued
us with the promise of dark caves.
Since we had so much time in the bay, we were able to relax instead of feeling
like we had to concentrate on the view all the time. We could read, and look up
occasionally to be surprised by the beauty all over again.
~ * ~
SA PA: The Cloud Yard
We took a train to the north of Vietnam, so far north that we could see China
across the river. Then, we piled in a mini-bus with too many other people and
ascended into the mountains to visit Sa Pa.
Sa Pa is a town nestled a mile high, across from Vietnam's highest mountain,
Fan Si Pan. (I would be remiss here if I didn't mention the multitude of "fancy
pants" jokes that mountain spawned.) The view down into the valley from Sa Pa is full
of terraced rice fields and man-made ponds.
In Sa Pa, I got to experience two fantasies.
First was the fantasy of winter. I missed winter this year, spending what is
usually the winter months in New Zealand and Australia, where it was summer. I
couldn't remember the last time I was cold. But Sa Pa is at a high elevation,
and so the nights can be chilly. Steve and I walked around the streets at
night, revelling in the chill; me bundled in my fleece coat, Steve wearing two
shirts. We had a fireplace in our hotel room, and actually used it one night.
It was like one magical Christmas-season day.
The other fantasy was my lifelong desire to fly through the clouds. Since I was
young, I've always wanted to be outside the plane when it flew through the
clouds. I wanted the cool wisps of the cloud to surround me. Despite a few
near-miss attempts while paragliding, I had never come closer than a
Our view at first
Our view on the third day
In Sa Pa, it was different. Clouds, real and thick, congregate among the
mountains and play hide-and-seek with Sa Pa. Our hotel room directly faced Fan
Si Pan, but it wasn't until our third day that we even saw the mountain. Being
up so high, the clouds move fast, much faster than they ever seem to move at
sea level. They reach their tendrils around walls, and zip through the street,
obscuring adjacent buildings from view. Once or twice, I was lucky enough to be
standing somewhere and the clouds would whip up from below and flow around me,
through my fingers, and onward.
( The term "Cloud Yard" is borrowed from a park in Sa Pa. )
~ * ~
REBEL WITHOUT A HAT
Steve and I had just finished a discussion about the clothes worn by the hill
tribes. There are a multitude of small tribes that live in the north of Vietnam
that are ethnically different from the Vietnamese. These "minorities", as they
are called by the Vietnamese, live in rural villages and make their living
through agriculture and selling their traditional crafts to tourists. The most
striking thing about the hill tribes is their costume. Each tribe has a
distinct and colorful outfit that is worn by everyone. The men and the women
have a different variation, but it is easy to tell the tribes apart by their
Two H'mong girls
I had wondered aloud to Steve if it ever occurred to anyone in the tribe to
question their "uniform." Didn't anyone want to look different? The answer
seemed to be no. We concluded that maybe the force of tradition or something
unknown was stronger in the hill tribes.
We were hiking down the mountain from Sa Pa to visit some H'mong villages. As
we turned off the main road, we were joined by three girls. They began with the
usual question: "Where you from?" By now, we weren't surprised to hear English.
We had found that many hill tribe people spoke better English than most
Vietnamese, and the children were the most proficient.
So we wandered down a dirt trail and made conversation with the girls. One girl
left us shortly, but the others spent the afternoon showing us around. Their
names were La and Tu. La was the outspoken one who divided her time between
getting to know us and giggling in H'mong with Tu.
As we walked, we noticed that La wasn't wearing the traditional H'mong hat.
Steve asked her about it. She replied that her parents had made her one, but
she "didn't like it." In that day and the next, we never saw her in the hat.
And she was the only H'mong female (besides the babies) we saw without one in
our time in Sa Pa. We had found a rebel!
La is the one without a hat
This streak of independent thought warmed me to La, although there was plenty
about her that was remarkable. She was quick and intelligent, with a fairly
good grasp of English. For a nine-year-old girl, she had an uncanny sense of
restraint and presence. In contrast with some of the young boys who ran up to
us and yelled "pay! pay!" (asking for money), La would more often politely
refuse a gift than accept.
Rice paddies in La's village
She (with Tu in tow) showed us her village and her house, then walked another 4
kilometers with us among terraced rice paddies to show us her school in the
next village. She never asked us for anything in return for the tour, so we
bought some of her merchandise. (Every H'mong girl carries around jewelry and
embroidered things to sell to tourists. We think they probably account for a
large percentage of a family's income.) Steve bought a bracelet from Tu, and I
bought one from La. Later, she also talked me into a mouth harp (a small,
In the jeep back to Sa Pa
We shared a Jeep back to Sa Pa from the second village, and made plans to meet
later for a weekly show of H'mong music. It was held in a bar called the Green
Bamboo, and we arrived early to get a good seat. The place ended up packed,
each group of tourists with their own H'mong friends.
We saved a seat for La, who arrived with Tu just before the show started. To
our surprise, they each gave us an embroidered friendship bracelet. They began
to tie them on our wrists, and our first instinct was to worry about how much
they would cost. When it turned out they were free gifts, I was touched.
After some coaxing, La agreed to a Coke, and Steve went to the bar for drinks.
The whole rest of the night, La nursed the Coke with utmost care. She left it
unopened for maybe 20 minutes, before sipping it ever so slowly. In an
unguarded moment, Steve caught her smiling a special secret smile before
enjoying a sip.
When we asked, La gave us her address and we gave her ours. She was hopeful,
but realistic, and said she would write us once we wrote to her first. (She
didn't say, but I would guess other visitors had broken their promises.) Steve
offered to send her a disposable camera so she could take pictures and send
them back to us, and the idea appealed to her. We just sent her a letter today.
We're curious to see what happens to her when she grows up - will her
rebellious streak continue? Or will she follow in the footsteps of her
( 01~26~02... We wrote to La three times, but we never
received a reply. )