Monday, April 15, 2013

From Between the Rivers to the City of Eternal Spring, Part 1: Vietnam

Over twelve days, my friend and high school classmate Luke and I travelled from Hanoi, Vietnam to Kunming, China, whose nicknames are referenced in the title above. We covered the 350 miles via train, bus, taxi and boat with a few excursions and four stops along the way. Eight nights in northern Vietnam, four in China’s Yunnan Province. It was the longest trip I’ve ever planned independently, as opposed to a group tour, and overall, things went quite well. We only got ripped off once (See 'Part 2' below) and all that I managed to leave behind was a cheap pair of sunglasses. Certainly an improvement from my trip to the states at Christmas, where I left my phone, camera and two credit cards. 

Anyway, I've started to feel that my trip summaries are getting a bit stale. Each one seems to go through the trip like a checklist of places/activities and how I enjoyed them. I like to think of myself as a writer of 'creative' non-fiction and it wouldn’t be particularly creative to write about how Hanoi was frenetic, Halong Bay was majestic, Sapa was peaceful, Yuanyang was stunning and Kunming was boring but friendly, the end. You can read about that in any guidebook. Instead, I’ve decided to recall some certain events on our trip. I hope they bring you into our trip better than a couple of Lonely Planet blurbs could. 

‘O Ho Chi Minh!’ 

After a few days in Hanoi, dodging an absurd amount of motorcycles, checking out a handful of propaganda-filled museums and trying to keep track of our Dong (money), we booked a tour of Halong Bay, as nearly every tourist in the Hanoi area does. If you’re not familiar, Halong Bay is filled with thousands of steep green islands also known as karst formations. It’s one of the ‘New7Wonders of Nature’ and hosts countless boats filled with tourists on two or three day trips through the area, there to see the unique topography. We got on one of these boats, in a group with six Swedish girls on a travel holiday before university, a Vietnamese group of four (an old woman, two middle aged women, and a middle aged man, all related somehow we thought), our guide who called herself Seven, and two European couples, both named—I kid you not—Sebastian and Christina. 

We were talking with the Sebastians and Christinas after dinner when Seven announced that it was time for karaoke. After fiddling with the karaoke machine for half an hour or so, the boat’s crew managed to get the music going. After ‘Hey Jude’ from Sebastian #1 and a few other shrill sounding Vietnamese songs from one of the ladies in the Vietnamese group, Seven announced that the captain would be playing a song he learned in his days in the Vietnamese army many years ago. It was a song dedicated to the father of modern Vietnam and god-like figure, Ho Chi Minh. I’m always intrigued by music of other cultures, but watching his face light up as he sang and gently strummed guitar was truly mesmerizing to me. Here’s a clip of that. 

On the next morning after the Sebastians, Christinas and Swedish girls (three of whom were named Amanda) had left for one of the islands, I asked the captain to borrow his guitar before Luke and I went up to the top of the boat. There was a light drizzle, but that’s welcome to a couple of Seattle boys. Atop our boat, we wrote the song ‘Halong Bay Blues’ which ended with a thunderclap. The lyrics portray us as a couple of shipwrecked pirates in Halong Bay before it became a tourist logjam. “We ain’t got the news/We’re all out of booze/That’s the Halong Bay blues.” Plus some improvised humming to make up for lack of a rhyme.  

Cha ca restaurant in Hanoi
Me and my bro, uncle Ho!

Halong Bay
'My Dong has taken me to amazing places'

Is That the Dutch Guy?

Our next stop in Vietnam was Sapa, a hilly region near the northern border of Vietnam. After our night train from Hanoi, we booked a trek and homestay with a Hmong family a little ways from the main town, at the recommendation of Luke’s brother Sam who had been there last year. After a gorgeous hike through misty rice terraces with our guide Bau and a fellow American traveler named Kyle, we arrived at the homestay and met a couple from Scotland named Euan and Ruth who would be staying at the same house with us. We lucked out again and really gelled with the Scots who were on a long trip from Perth, Australia back to the UK via Eastern Australia, Southeast Asia and Madagascar. 

After we’d been treated to an excellent dinner and a few shots of homemade ‘happy water’ aka rice wine, the five of us decided to check out a small café/bar/homestay that was just down the road from our house. Bear in mind, despite this being a Hmong village in rural Vietnam, it was well set up for tourists like ourselves, with plenty of small shops offering snacks, handicrafts and other trinkets. There was only one bar though and we had nothing better to do than to stop in for a while. 

On the way to the homestay, Ruth and Euan’s guide had told them that there was a Dutch man living in the village who had pushed her cousin and was not to be trusted. His place was on the left side of the road, Euan and Ruth told us as we strolled into the bar on the right. However, we noticed after we sat down that a very Dutch sounding man was taking our order, which consisted of cookies, mulled wine, and hot chocolate. As we began to play the café’s edition of Jenga and later, Uno, we quietly discussed whether or not this man we’d heard about. Ruth described him as looking similar to Count Olaf, the villain of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Meanwhile, the mysterious host was talking a disgruntled looking Australian couple who’s homestay family had apparently been quite rude and unfriendly. Later, we found out the Dutch man had told them, ‘Oh yes. That family, they’ll kill you.' in a successful attempt to persuade them to book a room at his place. Don’t worry; Ruth and Euan said they saw the Australian couple later and they were alive and well. 

As we left the bar, the man kept going on about how he’d bought these Uno cards in Holland and they were the only one of their kind in Sapa. The obsession was more than strange and it confirmed that he was indeed the infamous Dutch guy and someone had mixed up which side of the road he lived on. Luckily, we never saw him again, and Sapa was a highlight overall, but I couldn’t help hearkening back to A Series of Unfortunate Events and wondering what the Dutch guy was up to, particularly if he was really the father of the little two year old that joined us for the game of Uno, or was she…an orphan? My apologies that none of this will make any sense if you haven’t read the series.


Us with our excellent Hmong guide Bau

Don't be deceived by the bottle or name, 'happy water' is NOT water

Jenga at the creepy bar

Don't fall in! Your Dong would get rather soggy

From Between the Rivers to the City of Eternal Spring, Part 2: China

Putonghua? Meiyou (Mandarin? None) 

From Sapa, we took a bus back to Lao Cai, which sits right on the border opposite China’s Yunnan Province. This part of the trip was our most foreign and challenging, as none of our guidebooks really talked much about entering China from Lao Cai. All we knew was that the Chinese city on the other side was called Hekou and that from there, we could take a bus to Yuanyang, our next destination. 

One woman in a hotel in Sapa told us that they sold Chinese bus tickets on the Lao Cai side so we’d be able to plan our trip to Yuanyang before leaving Vietnam. Even though my guidebook confirmed this, we could not find the so-called bus ticket counter anywhere and decided to just cross the border and figure it out from there. (Sidenote: 'We'll figure it out later' was one of the most common phrases on our trip. That along with, 'Would you stop eyeing my Dong?!') The border process consisted of a Vietnamese guy suspiciously stamping our passports as we exited the country, walking a hundred yards in no man’s land, then waiting for a Chinese guy to suspiciously stamp our passports on the Hekou side. 

Luke, somewhere between Vietnam and China
Once we got to Hekou, it was dark and we had no idea what the hell to do. We walked into a place right next to the border that appeared to be some sort of travel agency with pictures of Halong Bay and Hanoi outside. After a few minutes of trying to awkwardly communicate in hand gestures with the people working there, I spoke to them in my broken Cantonese, and lo and behold, one of the women could understand, despite being quite far from Hong Kong and the Canton area. We managed to find out that this place also had accommodation and we could have a room there for about 5 USD a night. Tired and ready to put our things down, we decided to book this hotel or whatever it was. 

Next we began to wander around, approaching people and pointing to the Chinese characters for bus station on my iPad's translator app with a questioning shrug. Everyone seemed to point different directions and no one spoke a word of English. Finally, we showed it to a man who hailed a taxi for us. We got in without thinking about it, being tired and confused. 

We were convinced that the bus station was close, as my guidebook said it was only 50 meters from the border. So when the taxi got onto a highway and started taking us far from anywhere with all our stuff back in the hotel, we became a bit anxious, to say the least. Finally after about ten minutes, the taxi driver stopped in what appeared to be the parking lot of another hotel. He then mimed writing the number ‘100’ on his hand with his index finger. I said, ‘No way!’ and wrote ‘50’ on mine. He didn’t relent and eventually, we gave him the equivalent of 16 USD. Then as if reveling in his trickery, the driver held our 100 RMB note up to the light to check if it was counterfeit. 

We got out of the asshole’s cab and went inside the nearby hotel, imagining if anyone could speak English in this town it would be at the fancy hotel receptionist. False. But, miraculously she too could speak Cantonese! To put this in perspective, the two ladies at the two different hotels were the only two non-tourist Cantonese speakers I met on the entire trip. I managed to tell her we were looking for the bus station, she told us it was next to her hotel but it was closed and we should come back in the morning. I thanked her and asked her to write down 'border’ in Chinese so we could get back to the other hotel with our stuff. This time, we got in a taxi for 3 USD and the next morning, caught the bus to Yuanyang, where we spent a pleasant two days, walking through some beautiful rice terraces. 

So…here are the takeaway moments of that nerve-wracking evening. 

-The guidebook made a huge mistake in saying the Hekou bus station was 50 meters from the border. I’m going to email the publisher.

-Knowing a bit of Mandarin would have saved us a lot of hassle. 

-On the other hand, speaking a little Cantonese was a big help.

-We didn’t see, let alone interact with, any foreigners or English speakers over a period of nearly 24 hours between Lao Cai and Yuanyang. 

-Getting ripped off by that taxi driver was frustrating but hardly a catastrophic event. We survived! 

And here are some of the photos from Yuanyang, the much calmer, easier to navigate place we went to next:

Hiking in Yuanyang

Rice terraces

More rice terraces

The sun sets on Xinjie

Ooooh, aaaah

A Real Life Good Guy Greg 

(see namesake) The last stop of our trip was Kunming, a small Chinese town of four million people. Okay it's a bit more than a town I suppose but I never stop being shocked by the size of Chinese cities. Chicago is the third largest city in the US with approximately 2.7 million people living within the city limits. Do you know how many Chinese cities are larger than Chicago? Answer: 32. True story, according to Wikipedia, which I trust with my whole heart. 

Anyway, after arriving on the bus from Yuanyang to Kunming, we wanted to try to find a hostel that my old friend and until recently, fellow expat Henry had recommended. After searching for a while and finally finding it, they told us IN ENGLISH (!) that there were—sigh—no rooms available. And the same was true at the other hostels, they told us. We found another hotel, but the receptionist looked scared, and kept waving her hands as if to say, ‘Sorry but I don’t know how to communicate with your kind and therefore can’t help you. Sorry again!’ 

After getting rejected by a handful of taxis, we decided to try to walk towards another one of the hotels mentioned in the not-so-trusty guidebook. Enter Greg Liu. Just as we had stopped to look over the basic map of Kunming, a slightly pudgy Chinese man of 35-40 comes up to us and asks, in English, ‘Can I help you?’ We were taken aback and said, ‘Yes, we’re looking for a place to stay around here. Any recommendations?’ He pointed us in the direction of the city center but then said he was going there anyway and we could join him. 

We walked for a while and had some small talk. He was jeweler who had majored in English in university and we told him about ourselves, two American classmates who had been living in the far away locations of Hong Kong and Sydney. He took us to another hostel, which was expectedly full and then a nearby hotel that said, even after showing us a room, that they legally couldn’t take foreigners. Never quite figured out why they even offered to show us a room. Perhaps they thought there was a chance that we may have Chinese citizenship somehow? 

Next Greg told us he would try to drive us to a hotel. We got in his car, and he began to complain about Kunming traffic and the government. He told us we were lucky and that America is much more free than China. He also began telling us about his car, which was French and quite fancy, though I can’t remember the make. Finally, we found a hotel that would take us. In the lobby, he informed us, ‘This hotel doesn’t take Japanese because we REALLY hate the Japanese. But Americans, you’re okay.’ I asked if his the anti-Japanese feelings had to do with the Diaoyu Islands dispute and he said, ‘Yes and do you know about what happened in Nanjing? Very bad.’

Despite this xenophobia, we couldn’t believe what an act of kindness Greg had performed for us. He helped us, two complete strangers from America, for a full hour and a half. And in the end, he succeeded in securing a great hotel for a reasonable price. We were sure to get his email to thank him for how he’d helped us. Living in Hong Kong, it’s easy to be leery of the mainland Chinese, but I have no doubt that for every obnoxious tourist, pushing their way through a Hong Kong train station, there’s a good guy like Greg Liu, helping out some lost travelers on the streets of Kunming.

Temple in Kunming

Yunnan Provincial Museum

Cui Hu Park

Downtown Kunming